By Judith Dinowitz
Just days after the terrorist attacks in Chelsea and with the Yomim Noraim on the horizon, Agudath Israel held an emergency meeting at its National Headquarters for representatives of its member shuls. Speakers from the New York Police Department (NYPD) and the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) provided expert advice on the growing security threat to Jews in the United States, along with a full battery of strategies to help prevent future attacks.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudath Israel’s Executive Vice President, opened the meeting by explaining the importance and timeliness of the gathering. “On the Yomim Tovim, when there is a tremendous rise in the number of people going to shul, our level of vigilance needs to be especially high.
“Obviously as believing Jews, we know that ‘Im Hashem lo yishmor ir shav shakad shomeir,’ if Hashem does not watch over a city, the watchman’s efforts are for naught – and so of course we must daven to the Shomeir Yisroel for our safety and security no matter what steps we may take to fortify our buildings. But that does not absolve us of our shtadlonus responsibility to take those steps.”
Jordan R. Reimer, an Intelligence Research Specialist from the NYPD, spoke of the growing threat of ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). ISIL has escalated its attacks, bombarding Europe and the U.S. with “continuous drumbeats of terrorist attacks”. It trains disaffected Westerners to commit attacks on their home soil.
The NYPD works closely with the FBI and with liaisons from countries and international agencies, and is always on alert for the next attack. “At the NYPD, we are dedicated to investigating every lead,” said Mr. Reimer. “We run down each tip. The help of the community is invaluable in our efforts to stop the perpetrators of these attacks.”
David M. Pollock, Associate Executive Director at the JCRC, then presented “Ten Simple Ways to Make Your Synagogue Safer,” assisted by Lt. James Woods, Commanding Officer of the Liaison Unit at the NYPD’s Office of the Chief of Department. The most important step, Mr. Pollack said, is to form a security committee and plan your shul’s security. You must know who is entering the building and watch for anything that seems “off”. For simcha guests, he said, consider using a vetted list or a shared password. “I would say, ‘Baruch Shem… Fill in the rest of the sentence’,” quipped Mr. Pollack. “You’ve got your password right there.”
Leave only one entrance open, the JCRC leader urged, and monitor it at all times. Volunteers can take turns greeting those who enter, thereby catching anything suspicious. Mr. Pollack said, “It should be part of our culture to be secure.”
Lt. Woods said, “Just be aware of your surroundings. Because it’s Shabbos or the High Holidays, many people are in a festive mood and not as attentive. If you see something, talk to a police officer.” Police, often stationed outside of shuls on a Yom Tov, can get on the radio immediately and call for help. The NYPD has the ability to bring 400 officers on to any site at any given time.
A lively discussion ensued, focusing on the role of police, options for hiring security guards, and procedures to follow should one see something suspicious.
Mr. Pollack said, “It’s wonderful to work with Agudah, to reach a whole layer of synagogues and make a large swath of the Jewish community safer.”
Following the security briefing, Rabbi Gedaliah Weinberger, Chairman Emeritus of Agudath Israel’s Board of Trustees, reported on the services provided by Chayim Aruchim, Agudath Israel’s division dealing with end-of-life issues. In addition to educating the public about such issues and operating a 24-hour hotline through which rabbonim expert in medical halacha are available to provide guidance in any given medical scenario, Chayim Aruchim is on the front lines of ensuring that Jewish patients receive life-sustaining medical care as required by halacha even in the face of opposition by hospitals.
Rabbi Zwiebel said, “Chayim Aruchim does remarkable work. Its intervention has resulted in numerous cases of hospitals continuing treatment for halacha-abiding members of the community. It behooves all of us to be aware of Chayim Aruchim and its services.”
Close to 25 representatives from Agudath Israel shuls in the New York metropolitan area were present at the meeting, with several from other cities or states listening in by video conference.
The meeting concluded with Rabbi Zwiebel’s invitation for even closer collaboration between Agudath Israel shuls and the national organization. “Your shuls are an integral part of the Agudah movement,” he said. “We welcome your input and ideas on how to further strengthen the kesher between us.”