Synagogues ‘On Guard’ for Holidays
Sinai Temple in Westwood has spent at least $365,000 annually on increased security since Sept. 11.
"That’s just for my manpower, to have bodies here when the building is open," said Howard Lesner, the Conservative synagogue’s executive director, who gleans the extra security budget from a post-Sept. 11, $36-per-student fee at Sinai’s day school and another $200-per-family temple fee.
With 1,500-plus families and 5,000 people expected there for the High Holidays, Sinai joins other local Jewish institutions with expanded security following early August’s heightened terror alert and reports of increased Al-Qaeda activity, including surveillance of prominent buildings in New York and Washington, D.C.
"Anxiety is in the air," said Jane Zuckerman, executive director of the 900-family Reform Temple Israel of Hollywood, which Zuckerman seeks to make not a bunker but just "a secure facility but still be welcoming to those who wish to pray."
Balancing security and Jewish communal life will see synagogue executive directors, pulpit rabbis and other Jewish institutional leaders meet Aug. 30 to discuss High Holiday security.
"I don’t expect my rabbis to be concerned about the [nuts and bolts], said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis referring to the nuts and bolts. "But it is critically important that our rabbis and agency executives be acquainted with the highest levels of law enforcement."
Southern California’s Jewish institutions remain on a continual security footing. At the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, spokeswoman Deborah Dragon said the high-profile organization’s "same vigilant security" continues regardless of terror alert levels. The University of Judaism regularly works on security with both the nearby Stephen S. Wise Temple and the Casiano Bel-Air Homeowners Association.
But the terror alerts have what Sinai’s Lesner calls a, "yo-yo effect" of expanding security staff because no single terror alert has, "lasted for more than two weeks."
Zuckerman said one problem with widely publicized terror alerts is that, "we have information overshare; years ago, there might have been threats, but we didn’t know about it."
Synagogues also find metal detectors impractical.
"It would slow things down so tremendously," said Lesner, whose shul has new digital, color security cameras.
The Board of Rabbis is co-hosting the invitation-only Aug. 30 meeting with the American Jewish Committee (AJC). Expected to attend are Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.
"Obviously the point is to allay fears as best we can," said AJC L.A. office executive director Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, who wants more support for the AJC’s new security program SCAN (Secure Community Alert Network), an electronic notification system for Jewish institutions. "It’s not local yet, but it’s going to be introduced over the next couple of months."
At both Sinai Temple and Temple Israel, security means there is one sidewalk and one car entrance; with the exception of its popular "Friday Night Live" singles events, Sinai requires all bar mitzvah and wedding guests to be on a list. Security also is integral to the design of Jewish buildings — The Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters has huge, potted sidewalk trees that act as both decor and security barriers — and at outreach events to the non-Jewish community. When 20 L.A.-based diplomats this spring took the AJC’s six-hour trip through Jewish Los Angeles, the diplomats’ tour bus was shadowed by an unmarked police car.
Terror alerts aside, it is not foreign terrorists but homegrown fanatics who may attack a shul.
"Al Qaeda is not interested, I don’t think, in Sinai Temple or other synagogues," Lesner said.
Aug. 10 was the fifth anniversary of Aryan Nations member Buford Furrow’s shooting rampage, which in 1999 left a Filipino American postal worker dead and five people injured at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills.
Federal agents learned that Furrow, now serving life in prison without parole, targeted the center only after he studied the Simon Wiesenthal Center and deemed it too hard to attack.
"His first, intended goal was to attack us," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center’s associate dean, adding that dozens of law enforcement personnel are at the center and its Museum of Tolerance every day for tolerance education. "We’re not a soft target."
Diamond said Jewish institutional security requires prudence to avoid spreading hysteria.
Said Temple Israel’s Zuckerman, "We can do what’s reasonable. For some people, we can’t do enough security. I see that older people, feeling vulnerable in general, would like to see more security. And then also parents with small children, who are in general just terrified by what’s going on."
But with ongoing anti-Semitism — such as the desecration of Jewish graves this summer in New Zealand’s historically tranquil capital of Wellington — Cooper said, "there’s no need to be paranoid because the threats are serious."
"Take the basic, serious measures; know who’s coming into your building," said Cooper, whose advice to worshippers at shul is, "They should close their eyes at prayer, and keep them open on their way in and out."