A number of years ago, I sent a letter to the owner of a very prominent sleep-away camp in Monticello, New York. My letter expressed my concern for the physical safety of the campers, especially in light of the fact that in foothills of the Catskill Mountains, on the outskirts of Hancock, New York, a radical Islamic para-military training facility named Islamberg had recently opened. I wondered if there was some way to get real security at the entrance to this sleep-away camp, since other than a ramshackle booth with no one in it, there really was a complete lack of security at this camp (and I feared other camps as well).
Call me crazy or paranoid, but I know that our most precious jewels are our children and their safety is paramount in our minds at all times. Needless to say, I received no response. You may say that perhaps the owner never received my email or, worse, chose to ignore my letter altogether. Either way, I was disappointed that we could not even have a conversation about security.
Even if in theory nothing more can be done (which I highly doubt), no security guard(s) could be posted in and around camps, and no security drills (besides the fire drill they have once a summer) could be conducted, I thought that at least broaching the subject would be valuable. Alas, I was ignored.
This past summer, I went to visit my nephews at a camp in Swan Lake, NY. I was in the area and it was Friday afternoon, so I figured I would just drop by to see how they were doing. Well, as I drove into the camp parking lot, I was not surprised to see that proverbial ramshackle hut that every camp seems to have at their entrance, but there was no one in or near it to ask me who I was and what I was doing there, since clearly it was not visiting day. Don’t get me wrong. It was a beautiful sight seeing what must have been close to one hundred boys playing basketball and football in the open fresh air of the Catskill Mountains. I was thrilled to see my nephews and glad that after all their hard work in yeshiva during the year, they had the opportunity to get in much-needed exercise in an overall relaxed atmosphere, but I was a bit unnerved that there was no security. G-d forbid, I thought to myself, anyone could walk right into this place and do the unthinkable.
We all love our children and would do anything to protect them. Our hearts go out to the parents of all those little first graders who were brutally murdered this past Friday in Newton, Connecticut. It is an unthinkable crime and we shudder to imagine what these children must have been feeling during their final moments, having their innocence ripped away together with their pure souls. We cannot even begin to fathom the pain that these parents will have to endure for the rest of their shattered lives, and nothing we can ever say will assuage their pain. But for those of us who are not directly affected and for those of us who are a little bit removed, we can more easily reflect on the lessons that we must learn. I dare suggest that the yeshivos and sleep-away camps that we send our precious children to need to do much more about security.
Just this morning, I did something I had never done. I intentionally attempted (successfully, I might add) to walk into a prominent local yeshiva here in Flatbush, Brooklyn, to “test” their security. I was elated at first when I tried to open the front door to the elementary school and found it locked. I then tried the door next to it and found that it was also locked. I thought to myself, “Maybe this yeshiva does have a high level of security.” My hopes were very quickly dashed as I walked around to another entrance and pulled on the door, hoping it would be locked. Unfortunately, it was not. I was able to walk right in and go up to the second floor, right past the first and second grades, peering into the classrooms and making eye contact with the teachers.
Now, it is true that I was not wearing camouflaged fatigues, nor was I carrying a rifle or wearing a kafiya and screaming, “Allahu Akbar!” but the fact is that anyone with nefarious intentions could have easily walked right up to the first grade just as I did. It is also true that perhaps this random yeshiva that I chose was the exception and not the rule, but I think we all know better. I was deflated, to say the least.
Will you exclaim that it can never happen in our yeshivos or camps and I am just paranoid? Why can’t it happen? It happened at an otherwise tranquil sleep-away camp in Norway in 2011. 85 campers there were killed. Furthermore, who would have thought, a week ago, that it could happen in a nice, comfortable, middle class, American, sleepy town like Newton, Connecticut?
We now know that we are all susceptible, regardless of the community we live in. In addition, it already happened in a yeshiva last March in Toulouse, France. “Oh,” you will cry out, “you are just mongering unwarranted fear, because we simply do not have such crazy madmen in our midst.” You’re probably right (though after the Leiby Kletzky tragedy, I am not so sure), but we live in a big city of over eight million people, and, in fact, some of us live just mere blocks from the mosque where Yousef Ramzi, one of the masterminds of the first World Trade Center bombing, went to conspire with some of his accomplices. I would venture to say that only someone with their head in the sand truly believes that this could never ever happen, Rachmana litzlan, to our precious diamonds by a madman outside our community.
If we, as a community, search within ourselves and are ready to have a real conversation, then we need to be truthful and start implementing more security in our yeshivos and camps to further protect our most precious loved ones, our kinderlach.
These poor children in Newton had gone through safety drills. They even had locked doors, and it now seems from a very preliminary report that nobody was able to get into that Newton school without being buzzed in through a locked entrance, and the only reason the shooter was able to gain entrance was because he was a son of a teacher there who they recognized.
We all know that most yeshivos and camps do not even have that modicum of security. Can we honestly say that we have security guards, security drills (not fire drills), etc.? Does it make sense to suggest that since security at Sandy Hook Elementary was not able to stop a determined madman that we, as a community and as parents, should not demand from our yeshivos and camps increased levels of security? Why shouldn’t every parent demand that the yeshiva have at least one security guard who is hooked up to local law enforcement and more, if possible? Why shouldn’t parents demand that the yeshivos explain to them how they are going to protect the kinderlach so that they can be protected and secure and can be expected to come home safely to their mother’s arms when they walk through the door after a whole day at school?
It is true that it may slightly increase the cost of an already high tuition, but which emotionally stable and healthy parent would not readily give all they could for the security and safety of their children? Lemaan Hashem, let us not wait until, G-d forbid, it is too late. Let us demand from our yeshivos, schools and camps to take the appropriate security measures now so that together with the hevel pihem shel tinokoos shel bais rabbon, the sweet words of Torah from our little ones, they and children everywhere can, with G-d’s help, be better protected.
Jacob Hirsch Esq.