Jewish security officials, cops from five North American cities tour Israel

Jewish security officials from five North American cities joined top police officers in a tour of Israel to examine its security practices.

Four U.S. metropolitan areas — Cleveland, Memphis, Detroit and Kansas City, the site of a deadly attack on Jewish institutions last year — are represented on the weeklong trip by Jewish security officials and senior police officers.

Also joining the tour, organized by Secure Community Network, the security arm of the national Jewish community, are directors of security for Montreal’s Jewish community and a representative of the New Jersey State Police. In addition, a senior official of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is accompanying the group, which arrived in Israel on Sunday.

SCN, affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, has long emphasized the importance of building relationships with local police. JFNA and local federations are paying for the tour.

The aim of the trip is to examine Israeli methods of increasing public awareness of a security threat. Israeli officials will brief participants on terrorism, international threats and cybersecurity, among other issues.

The timing of the massive terrorist attack in Paris over the weekend made the need for the training especially acute, said SCN’s director, Paul Goldenberg.

“The events in Paris, with well-planned and coordinated attacks on innocent civilians at soft targets, highlights the importance of an approach which brings together community, security professionals and law enforcement,” he said in a statement.

In Tennessee, Steve Cohen trounces primary challenger

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) easily survived a primary election challenge, making it likely he will continue to represent Tennessee’s 9th Congressional District.

Cohen defeated challenger Ricky Wilkins by a more than 2-to-1 margin in Thursday’s primary, winning 66 percent of the vote to Wilkins’ 33 percent, according to vote totals compiled by The Associated Press. That makes Cohen the overwhelming favorite to win a sixth consecutive term in the general election; the 9th district is overwhelmingly Democratic.

Cohen will face Republican Charlotte Bergmann in the November general election. Bergmann challenged Cohen in the 2010 general election and lost by a 74-25 margin.

The 9th district encompasses much of the city of Memphis and is majority African American. Cohen, who is Jewish, first won the seat in 2006 when he took 31 percent of the vote in a crowded primary. Since then, he has faced an African-American primary challenger each year and has won overwhelmingly each time. Wilkins, an African-American attorney, earned the highest vote percentage of any primary challenger since Cohen was first elected to office.

Security prep for Memphis Klan rally seen as national model

Cantor Ricky Kampf descends from the bimah, adjusts his prayer shawl and strides up the aisle, cutting through the cavernous sanctuary to greet the familiar out-of-towner.

“Y’all here for the shindig?” Kampf says at the Baron Hirsch Synagogue here as he grasps the hand of Paul Goldenberg, the burly former cop who runs the Secure Community Network, the security arm of the national Jewish community.

The shindig in question is a Ku Klux Klan rally planned for later that day, March 30, in downtown Memphis. For months, Goldenberg has been in constant contact with the Jewish community leadership in this Mississippi River port city, as well as with local and federal law enforcement, in readying for any possible attack.

It's a security template that SCN, an arm of the Jewish Federations of North America and of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, wants to replicate across the United States.

“It’s not just dealing with the immediate challenge, but as we do in Jewish life, we try and prepare for the next situation, how to deal with these things on a regular basis, so they’re prepared for it,” Steve Hoffman, the co-chairman of SCN, tells JTA. “The best security preparation in the Jewish world is vigilance without panic.”

A persuasive, kinetic presence, Goldenberg crisscrosses the country meeting with Jewish community leaders and local law enforcement. But training in Memphis is accelerated because of the Klan rally, a protest of the decision to rename parks that until recently commemorated Confederate heroes — notably Nathan Bedford Forrest, a founder of the Klan.

Ahead of the rally, leaders from every Memphis Jewish institution receive a crash course in security training, including presentations by the Department of Homeland Security and the Memphis Police Department's SWAT team: Develop a communications plan, secure exits and entrances, and above all, be aware.

“The Jewish community and any community, faith-based organizations, we see them as part of the homeland security enterprise,” Bill Flynn, a deputy assistant secretary of DHS, tells JTA.

In the end, the Klan rally is a bust. Barely 60 Klansmen show up on the rain-soaked steps of Shelby County courthouse. A leader uses a megaphone to address klatches of men and women — some robed in white and red, others not — who respond with shouts of “White Power!” It's over in less than an hour.

But law enforcement officials still have reason to be concerned — not with the Klan itself, which makes a point these days of being law abiding — but that an outlier attracted to the rally could break off, drive 20 minutes east and target one of the seven synagogues in Memphis.

“The United States is into a four-year resurgence both of anti-government and white supremacist groups,” said Mark Pitcavage, the director of fact finding for the Anti-Defamation League. “This resurgence started in early 2009 following the election of Barack Obama and the economic crisis. There has been an upsurge in violent activity as a result of that.”

A report published in January by Arie Perliger, the director of terrorism studies at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, showed violent attacks emanating from the far right rising from below 200 per year at the turn of the century to more than 300 by the middle of the decade. Attacks spiked in 2008, Obama's election year, to more than 550 before dropping to 300 in 2010. In 2011, the number rose again, to more than 350.

In Memphis law enforcement circles, the threat is described in shorthand. “West Memphis” refers to the murder of two policemen in the Arkansas town across the river in 2010 by two affiliates of the anti-government “sovereign citizen” movement; “Washington state” is the placing of a bomb at a Martin Luther King Day parade site in Spokane in 2011; “Schmidt” is Richard Schmidt, a Toledo, Ohio, man arrested in December in possession of a small armory and a hit list including the names of leaders of the NAACP and the Jewish federation in Detroit.

In each of the cases, and in many others, the attackers are loners likely influenced by the rhetoric of extremist groups.

“In general, the FBI considers lone offenders to pose the most significant threat of violence within the extremist movement,” Eric Sorensen, an analyst with the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit, said in a March 13 conference call with the Memphis Jewish community leadership.

On the Saturday morning of the Klan rally, Goldenberg surveys Memphis synagogues, nodding approvingly at recommendations heeded — guards at each exit — and groaning at those ignored. A playground remains unprotected by shrubbery or a fence.

“We don’t want people seeing our kids,” Goldenberg says.

A patrol car checks streets near the synagogues. Fathers in yarmulkes walk their toddlers to Sabbath services seemingly unperturbed by plans for an extremist rally. A woman at a synagogue entrance holds out to Goldenberg the panic button hanging from her neck; one squeeze and the police are alerted, just as Goldenberg had recommended.

“Good work,” he says, and she shoots back a gratified grin.

Goldenberg says that communal officials who graduate from the training he organizes with law enforcement officials are “force multipliers.” John Cohen, the deputy counterterrorism coordinator at DHS, says that making a targeted ethnic or religious community a partner in its own protection is “our basic model” of homeland protection.

Such partnerships, however, make civil liberties groups nervous.

The American Civil Liberties Union has said that urging civilians to report suspicious activities could lead to abuses that it contends are already inherent in law enforcement reporting of such activities. Programs encouraging such reporting make it “far more likely that both the police and the public will continue overreporting the commonplace behavior of their neighbors,” the ACLU said in an analysis in January.

Even among Memphis Jews, not everyone is enamored of Goldenberg's strategy. Ronald Harkavy, a lawyer, philanthropist and community patriarch, isn't happy to run into Goldenberg at the Anshei Sphard Beth El Emeth Congregation.

“I’m one of those who say do nothing” when the Klan comes to town, he tells Goldenberg, his accent and broad smile thick with a cold gentility. “That’s been fine for over a hundred years.”

Goldenberg shrugs and Harkavy turns away. Another congregant leans in and whispers, “We’re thankful for all you do.”

Having completed his tour of Jewish Memphis, Goldenberg heads downtown to meet the Memphis Police Department’s liaison to the Jewish community, Stuart Frisch, an Israel Defense Forces veteran. Frisch ferries Goldenberg to a white van functioning as a command center. Goldenberg leaps in and admires a monitor feeding images from public and privately owned security cameras. The streets are empty.

The police ensure the Klansmen do not encounter anti-Klan protesters. In 1998, violent clashes at another rally traumatized the city. Memories of that day took up several pages in the morning edition of the Commercial Appeal, Memphis' main daily.

Between beat cops and SWAT team members, there is more security personnel — much of it African-American — than there are Klansmen. The megaphone-audio is so poor, the rain driving down so hard, that much of the grand wizard’s speech — apart from the punctuations of “White Power!” — is reduced to a muffled “wawawa.”

Goldenberg and his friend head out in search of lunch. The day is a success: The Jewish community in Memphis is aware and engaged with law enforcement. The Klan have come and gone. No one is hurt.

Breaking off from a dissipating anti-Klan rally, an African-American woman strides through the rain, arms outstretched.

“Wash away the sin!” she cries out. “Wash away the stench!”

Hundreds of groups back diversity on day of Klan rally in Memphis

Around 250 communal organizations and religious groups joined the mayors of Memphis and Shelby County, Tenn., in publishing a statement supporting diversity on the day the Ku Klux Klan staged a rally in the city.

“We believe our city is stronger and richer for its broad array of faith- and ethnic-based communities,” said the statement, which was wrapped around the front page of the Memphis Commercial Appeal on Saturday. “Because we don’t fear those who are different, we can embrace all the diverse cultures and faiths that make up the beautiful mosaic that is Memphis.”

The ad, spearheaded by the Memphis Jewish Federation, drew signatories from Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist groups and congregations, as well as numerous social action groups.

At the KKK rally at the Shelby County Courthouse in downtown Memphis, 61 Klansmen protested recent decisions by the city to rename parks commemorating Confederacy figures, notably Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who was among the founders of the white supremacist group in the war's aftermath.

The rally, held in a driving rain, passed without event and did not clash with anti-Klan protests held separately.

City officials had expressed concerns of a repeat of clashes between Klansmen and protesters in 1998 that led to riots.

Security guard arrested for vandalizing Memphis yeshiva’s Torahs at hotel

A Memphis yeshiva’s Shabbat retreat was disrupted when a hotel security guard was arrested for vandalizing Torah scrolls and other property belonging to the school.

Justin Shawn Baker, 24, an Iraqi War veteran living in Jackson, Tenn., was arrested and charged with vandalism between $60 and $250,000 — a Class B felony. His bail was set Monday at $100,000. Baker is an armed guard working for the Maxxguard security firm.

On Saturday morning, local police and later federal law enforcement were called to the DoubleTree Motel in Jackson to investigate damaged Torah scrolls, siddurs and music equipment belonging to the Margolin Hebrew Academy's Cooper Yeshiva High School.

Approximately 50 high school students and faculty from the school were spending Shabbat at the motel on their way to a ski trip in the Smoky Mountains.

A MySpace profile page belonging to Baker and one belonging to a woman who identifies herself as Baker’s wife both make references to Satan, though neither page has been in use for at least three years.