Security Measures Come Under Scrutiny


How can we stop this from happening again? This was the question on every Jewish parent’s and official’s mind in the aftermath of Tuesday’s shootings at the North Valley Jewish Community Center.

According to parents and staff, security at the Granada Hills site was nonexistent. Unlike the West Valley Jewish Community Center (also known as the Bernard Milken Campus), which houses the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance offices, the North Valley JCC had several possible entrance points, the main one overseen only by a reception desk.

Indeed, prior to the incident, most Los Angeles-area Jewish community centers employed no security guards, said Jeffrey L. Rouss, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles. “We’ve been in the business to prevent theft or other minor crimes,” Rouss said. “From their desks, our receptionists could keep an eye on an obnoxious individual, but an obnoxious person is very different from a terrorist. There is an emergency plan in each of our buildings, and we’ve used as examples a fire or a bomb scare. But we have had no security guards.”

The main reason for the lax security at the North Valley JCC? Quite simply, no one believed anything bad could happen in this peaceful residential neighborhood that’s nestled against the Valley’s northern hillside.

“It’s the most unbelievable thing,” said Jill Morgenstern, mother of one of the camp’s counselors. “It’s always been so quiet here.”

That changed, perhaps forever, after Tuesday morning. Upon word of the shooting, JCCs around the city scrambled to institute immediate security measures:

* At the Westside JCC on Olympic Boulevard, counselors evacuated children from the two pools, and led them to the gymnasium to await pick-up. A bright orange sign outside stated that all the doors had been locked, and that all visitors were required to enter from a specific entrance only. An armed guard patrolled the alley in front of a side entrance, and another guarded the center’s front doors.

* At the JCC in Agoura Hills, staffers immediately locked all doors, contacted parents and instructed them to come pick up their children.

* At Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge, children were moved to a locked room, and parents were called to pick them up.

Many parents at area JCCs said they would not send their children back for camp or preschool until more stringent security measures were instituted. And from rabbis to grade-schoolers, from devout to secular, there was a sense that Los Angeles Jewry’s basic sense of security had been profoundly shaken.

“The trauma at the North Valley JCC makes us feel that none of us are immune to senseless acts of violence,” said Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, West Coast director of Chabad. “The pure environment of the classroom and playground has been invaded.”

Now that the immediate tragedy has passed, officials have already begun discussing longer-term security needs. Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President John Fishel helped coordinate immediate security precautions at area synagogues on Tuesday. By Wednesday, he was meeting with Jewish communal leaders and security experts to begin mapping out a long-term strategy. “Something has clearly changed about the way we need to think about security,” he said. With the High Holidays and the start of the school year close at hand, such considerations, said Fishel, are particularly urgent.

A Terrifying Build Up

The need for a change has been building. The attack comes on the heels of two other violent acts that targeted the Jewish community. On June 18, arsonists set fire to three Sacramento-area synagogues. Two weeks later, on July 2, a gunman near Chicago shot at six Jews outside an Orthodox synagogue during a shooting spree aimed at minorities.

One year ago at this time, a series of anti-Semitic incidents took place in the Valley itself. Racist leaflets were sent to Granada Hills High School, Temple Solael of West Hills suffered graffiti vandalism, and more hate literature was discovered in Chatsworth. The literature was traced to a locally active white supremacist group, the National Alliance.

But Tuesday’s attack clearly ratcheted up concern. The Jewish Community Center Association of North America immediately put out an action alert to the 275 centers, urging them to beef up security and contact their local law enforcement authorities, according to the organization’s Robin Ballin.

Synagogues and other Jewish institutions have turned to law enforcement officials, private consultants, the Federation and the Anti-Defamation League for security advice. The Federation, which is the largest single funder of the JCC, will undoubtedly be faced with sharing the cost of added security.

A Delicate Balance

All Jewish institutions will now have to confront the balance between building a fortress and building a community. “I would hate to think we need to turn Jewish institutions into armed camps,” said Fishel. “But people have to take security a lot more seriously from now on.”

The challenge of finding that balance has been ongoing at the Milken Campus, which houses not only the Jewish community center and the Valley Alliance offices but those of the Valley branches of the Jewish Family Service, Jewish Big Brothers and other Federation affiliates.

“I don’t think our security will ever rise to the level of boarding an airplane,” said Scott Zimmerman, president of the West Valley JCC. “But I think all of the JCCs are going to sit down, and there’s going to be some changes made. The issue of who is armed and where armed people should be needs to be rethought.

“We have this concept that people don’t like seeing armed guards walking around, but people need to balance their ideals with the reality of present-day society.”

Ironically, the evening after the shooting was the night of a major fund-raiser for the West Valley JCC’s new $4.5 million Sports & Youth complex. Organizers decided to go ahead with the event, adding additional security guards and a metal detector. “We’ve decided to positively respond tonight and not let this incident frighten us,” said Valley Alliance Director Jack Mayer.

Aaron Levinson, who heads the Valley office of the ADL, said it was too soon to do any “Monday-morning quarterbacking” about the incident, but he did say that few Jewish organizations take advantage of the resources available to prepare for such emergencies.

“We offer training for Jewish and other religious institutions, seminars on how to step up security, and several pamphlets,” Levinson said. “As far as I know, none of the JCCs has ever used it.”

However, David Lehrer, the regional ADL director, said even the best preparation cannot stop a maniac intent on bloodshed.

“If someone is going to storm into your lobby and shoot, there is very little you can do to protect yourself unless you make your building a fortress,” Lehrer said. “I don’t think the answer is to make every building a prison. In 1999, as chilling as these incidents are, they’re the exception rather than the rule.”

The problem, Lehrer said, is that interest in the workshops and security in general is, “unfortunately, episodic. When an incident like this happens, people are very interested. But two months ago, no one was interested. What needs to happen is that everyone should take security very seriously.”

Schools Respond

Meanwhile, across Los Angeles, Jewish schools have already started to address immediate and long-term security concerns. As The Journal went to press on Wednesday, administrators at the Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School and Milken Community High School were attending a security meeting with the LAPD. Another security meeting was taking place at Adat Ari El Day School in North Hollywood, where a new armed guard was on duty in the parking lot, hired just after the shootings.

“A gate and fence expert was here, and we’re talking to many different security experts about our options,” said Vice Principal Ilene Reinfeld. “A number of parents have telephoned us to ask whether th
eir children will be safe here. It feels more urgent than Columbine because these shootings took place in our community, and only 9 miles away.”

A substantial number of concerned parents also telephoned Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, where a security guard already works around the clock and teachers on yard duty patrol the premises.

“One question is whether we need an armed guard,” said school Director Shirley Levine, who is arranging security audit walk-throughs with several law enforcement agencies. “Then we will make any decisions about how we will improve our security. We’ve already sent a letter out to parents, saying any improvements will be in place by the time school starts on Sept. 7.”

At Temple Emanuel Community Day School in Beverly Hills, Principal Irit Eliyahu will call a meeting with teachers to ensure that existing security measures are carried out with more vigilance. Currently, a security guard sits in the lobby, behind a front door that is monitored by a video camera and promptly locked at 8:15 a.m. each morning. Anyone who arrives thereafter must buzz to get in.

“When the children return to school in September,” Eliyahu said, “We are going to talk with them about the shootings, perhaps even send Rosh Hashanah cards to the victims.”

Tom Tugend contributed to this report.

More News:

Main Story.

First-hand accounts from children and parents;

Information about the suspect;

and What you can do.