July 22, 2024
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Town Hall Highlights Efforts to Protect the Jewish Community

When a Satmar youth received a threatening phone call just before Shabbat several weeks ago, the web of law enforcement and Jewish communal leadership in the metropolitan area sprang into action.

The FBI, local police departments, Jewish federation leadership in New York and New Jersey, the Anti-Defamation League and others involved in securing the Jewish community conferred. Appropriate synagogues were notified. By Saturday afternoon the threat had been deemed not credible after determining it came from a classmate.

Widespread panic in the Jewish community was avoided by keeping the information within appropriate leadership until its validity could be determined, something that was made possible by the trust and open lines of communication developed over the years, said participants in a virtual town hall with the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, ADL and the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest.

The February 10 meeting was called to address the alarming rise of antisemitism and fears within the community in the wake of the recent hostage situation at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, said Acting Prosecutor Theodore N. Stephens, adding that it was especially meaningful to him “as a Black prosecutor” that such a meeting was taking place during Black History Month, because of the strong involvement of the Jewish community during the Civil Rights Movement. “If nothing else comes out of this meeting I want to make clear the lines of communication between the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office and the Jewish community are always open,” he said.

The seamless communication between those involved in securing and protecting the community was evident during the recent incident with the youth. The efficiency of the communication link kept it among those who needed to know while the FBI obtained a warrant to trace the call, said ADL Vice President of Law Enforcement and Security Greg Ehrie.

Noting “that we know the problem is getting worse,” Ehrie said the ADL works with law enforcement, Jewish federations and conducts educational programming nationally to decrease racism and antisemitism as well as assist victims in the aftermath of bias crimes and incidents.

In a phone call after the program with The Jewish Link, MetroWest Federation’s Chief of Security Robert Wilson said the federation has been successful in applying for grants from Homeland Security, receiving more than $7 million over the last five years.

Additionally, Wilson said Federation collaborates with various local and state law enforcement and various agencies about security assessments of its buildings, held an active shooter training drill on February 15, and offers specific instruction such as usher training. “Sometimes we do the training ourselves, sometimes through the local municipalities,” said Wilson. “It’s a challenge. We have 30 synagogues in Essex County alone and 81 synagogues overall.”

Also helping to keep the community secure are the “really great relationships” and cooperation with other federations in New Jersey and the UJA-Federation of New York. Wilson joined in crediting those reliable communication lines in quickly alerting and analyzing the recent threat.

“We communicated among ourselves and with police departments with the limitation that it happened on Shabbos,” said Wilson, adding that if something is believed to be life-threatening, its GMW Alert system, through which at least four different volunteers from each synagogue and Jewish institution have agreed to accept notifications on Shabbat and holidays, will get word out in such a crisis.

The alert system was not employed during the incident because it didn’t rise to the level of being life-threatening.

Assistant Prosecutor Jesse Stalnaker, who is part of its Special Victims Unit, highlighted the importance of reporting not only hate crimes but also bias incidents despite there being “a very fine line between what constitutes a bias crime and what is protected by the First Amendment. It’s a very tricky statute.”

“You’re allowed to be a bad person,” said Stalnaker during the town hall, noting bias incidents are one of the only crimes where investigators have to prove motive. Nonetheless, he said that reporting allows incidents to be evaluated to see if they rise to the level of a bias crime.

Stalnaker said he receives a daily report of such incidents throughout the state, allowing law enforcement to evaluate what is going on statewide, spot trends or see if there may be a repeat offender operating in multiple counties.

Dan Morocco, chief of the grant bureau of State Homeland Security, said grants are competitive and based on risk vulnerability, with most recipients being houses of worship. He noted that Essex County is one of the leading recipients in the state.

“I will say publicly your success is my success if we make New Jersey a safe place to visit,” he said during the town hall, but noted although “some tremendous inroads” have been made in securing the Jewish community and others, he believed there is still a long way to go.

By Debra Rubin

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