ADL gives Jewish organizations security tips for High Holy Days

August 30, 2017
Pacific Jewish Center (PJC) in Venice Beach. Photo from Wikipedia

Anti-Defamation League (ADL) officials say they are not aware of any specific threats targeting Los Angeles Jewish communities in advance of the High Holy Days. Nevertheless, they are helping synagogues and Jewish institutions create safe, secure and welcoming environments so that congregants can pray with peace of mind.

The ADL regional office in Century City, as it does every year, held a security briefing on Aug. 22 at which ADL and FBI experts discussed how to respond to bomb threats and make risk assessments. The briefing, attended by representatives of about 50 local Jewish organizations, was closed to the press.

One person who attended the briefing, Lisabeth Lobenthal, executive director at University Synagogue, a Reform community in Brentwood, said in a phone interview that her community faces security issues not only on each of the High Holy Days, which draw 1,000 people, but throughout the year.

In June, Lobenthal said, she called the police when her synagogue received a threatening email. At the time, bomb threats had been called into the Westside Jewish Community Center and other Jewish centers in Southern California, so University Synagogue was not taking any chances.

“We knew it wasn’t real, but given the specific language, which was pretty horrific, we took it seriously,” she told the Journal. Her response followed U.S. Department of Homeland Security recommendations, which were also outlined in materials the ADL made available to attendees of the security briefing.

“Bomb threats are serious until proven otherwise,” the ADL says in an advisory on its website.

The ADL said Jewish community centers and other organizations in 38 states and three Canadian provinces were threatened 167 times from January to March of this year.

The annual High Holy Days briefing draws representatives from synagogues, social service organizations and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which operates the Community Security Initiative outreach program.

The ADL said its speakers emphasize that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to security, but they share steps that all organizations can take to be better prepared for anything that might happen.

Joanne Feldman, executive director of the Pacific Jewish Center (PJC) in Venice Beach, said the advice is especially critical for congregations like hers, which is also known as Shul on the Beach. PJC, a Modern Orthodox shul expecting about 100 people on each of the holidays, is located on the Venice Beach boardwalk. People of all backgrounds pass by it every day.

It’s like “having a synagogue in the middle of Times Square,” Feldman said, “with all that heavy traffic going by nonstop, with wonderful people and crazy people.”

She recalled an anti-hate demonstration on the boardwalk, organized on a Saturday after the recent white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Va. The PJC community was attending Shabbat services and feared that something could happen at the shul.

“We secured the doors to the shul, locked the doors to the shul and the door to the women’s section until they passed by, just to be preventative,” Feldman said.

Elise Jarvis, the ADL’s associate director for law enforcement outreach and community security, said additional vigilance in this post-Charlottesville period would serve communities well during the High Holy Days.

“We want to take security into consideration in our everyday operations and be thinking about security 24/7 and have a culture of security all the time,” Jarvis said. “This year in particular, now after what we saw happening in Charlottesville and the fact that we see white supremacists feeling emboldened, all those security measures are all the more important.”

One practical step Jewish institutions can take is maintaining a close relationship with local law enforcement.

“It’s very important to know who to go to if we are targeted or threatened, so [law enforcement] can respond as efficiently and effectively as possible,” Jarvis said.

The ADL often helps connect Jewish organizations without law enforcement contacts to police officials. It also provides security resources on its website, including guides titled “Protecting Your Jewish Institution: Security Strategies for Today’s Dangerous World” and “Security Recommendations for the High Holidays.” The materials focus on how to create both a secure environment and a welcoming place for people to observe the holiest days of the year, two goals that are not necessarily in conflict, Jarvis said.

“A secure environment — a safe environment — is a welcoming environment,” she said.  n

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