Securing communal peace of mind and body

Hate-based threats -- and actual attacks -- against individual Jews and Jewish institutions are as old as our people. The hatreds have been varied, from theological to racist and from accusations that we are communists to capitalists. The results have been expulsions, inquisitions, pogroms, gulags, the Shoah (Holocaust), and 20th and 21st Century terrorism.

For Jews, America, from the very beginning (1655 C.E.) has been different. These shores have been the most welcoming, the most secure, cultivating the very soil and environment in which the healthiest Diaspora community has ever resided.

Yet we Jews have been targeted even here too. Regardless of who and how many people perpetrated the 150 bomb threats (as of this writing)  targeting JCCs, organizations, and Jewish schools, these threats -- coupled with a spike of anti-Semitic vandalism and leafleting (to say nothing of the filth circulating on social media) -- have shaken our well-deserved sense of communal security.

Thankfully, though property has been vandalized and the emotional duress imposed on students, parents, teachers, staff, and, yes, even security personnel shouldn't be diminished, so far no one has been hurt.

That hasn't always been the case, even in the recent past. White supremacists Benjamin Smith (Chicago, July 1999), Buford Furrow (Los Angeles, August 1999), and Frazier Miller (Kansas City, 2014), all went on deadly shooting sprees that began with targeting Jews. And each tragic incident sheds light on the complexities of the security challenges we confront today.

Smith began his two-state killing spree by shooting and wounding nine Jews in West Rogers Park before proceeding to murderous attacks in Evanston (of an African-American) and Bloomington, Ind. (of a Korean student). This was a tragic case of individuals rather than institutions being targeted, and there is nothing reasonable his victims could have done differently to have avoided being shot. It was also an incident demonstrating that bigotry, while often starting with anti-Semitism, rarely ends with just Jews being vilified. Too often we serve as society's proverbial canary in the mineshaft. 

A month after Smith's spree, Buford Furrow surveilled three L.A. Jewish institutions but was deterred from attacking them because of visible security systems. He was not deterred however from entering a JCC's lobby and firing 70 shots, wounding two staff and three children. He too continued his rampage, murdering a Filipino postal worker he mistook for a Latino. This was another instance of an anti-Semitic attack morphing into a deadly attack against another minority. This episode also illuminates the utility of visible institutional security that can deter while also revealing the vulnerabilities of seeking to maintain an open, welcoming environment.

In contrast, Miller was deterred by security from entering a suburban Kansas City JCC, but he proceeded to shoot in its parking lot, and in a neighboring Jewish retirement home's parking lot, striking three people -- all non-Jews.  Again, an attack against Jews became a deadly assault on non-Jews, though in Miller's demented mind, he couldn't fathom that fellow Christians would patronize Jewish facilities. Meanwhile, even a secure JCC couldn't prevent a deadly attack in its unsecured parking lot. Few North American Jewish facilities' defensive perimeters start before their entry doors.

These three real life examples are but a few of the infinite scenarios that Jewish groups face: active shooter (internal or external), car and letter bombs, a bomb threat as a trick to prompt an evacuation into an ambush, etc., etc.

There is never total security for anyone or any one institution. Sometimes there's a correlation between heightened security and a decreased sense of security. For some, the presence of an armed guard is reassuring; for others it's a sign of heightened danger. Striking the right balance between visible security and fostering an open, welcoming, safe environment is an art, not a science. And like all art, it all lies in the eyes of the beholder.

In these unsettling times, JUF is playing its traditional, important communal security roles:

  • Facilitating security audits of 100 local Jewish facilities;
  • Convening a dozen security seminars the past decade; 
  • Sponsoring three senior Chicago Police commander missions to Israel; 
  • Coordinating with every federal, state, and local law enforcement agency, from Homeland Security to the F.B.I., and from Secret Service to State Police; 
  • Helping secure $14 million in capital grants from the Department of Homeland Security;
  • Investing millions throughout the Federation network for security operational expenses (non-capital); 
  • Helping establish and fund, on the national level, the Secure Community Network (SCN), which links all 200-plus North American Jewish communities into a coordinated security alert and assistance mechanism, and;
  • Just announced at a March JUF Security Summit , which attracted some 200 leaders of local synagogues, day schools, agencies, summer camps, and other community institutions, JUF announced new matching grants, providing up to $50,000 to enhance security at qualifying local Jewish organizations. 

Even in the face of increased security challenges, JUF -- in partnership with our communal institutions and law enforcement allies, and with the abiding trust of tens of thousands of donors -- will continue securing the Jewish future.

JUF Executive Vice President Jay Tcath is a veteran U.S. Army officer and supervises JUF's security personnel. 


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