The announcement of a thwarted terrorist attack against Jewish synagogues in the Riverdale section of the Bronx highlighted two important issues that have emerged clearly in the new age of terror since September 11: extraordinary law enforcement cooperation and investigative operations can disrupt potentially devastating homegrown terrorist attacks in the homeland; and the terrorist threat in America remains real, particularly for American Jews.
The alleged terror plot to bomb the synagogues using improvised explosive devices raises many concerns, most notably the feasibility of such an attack. The four suspects arrested on May 20 reportedly conducted surveillance of the Jewish institutions and identified specific targets for attack. The criminal complaint alleges that the suspects “photographed several synagogues and Jewish community centers in the Bronx and elsewhere for consideration as possible targets in a planned terrorist bombing campaign.” Had the suspects been able to acquire actual explosives and escape the detection of law enforcement, the morning news story could have been one of catastrophe and extreme devastation for the Jewish community.
While many Jewish organizations have taken remarkable steps to secure their institutions — installing cameras, access control systems and other technological security equipment — it is only through the integration of the human dimension of security, specifically training and exercises, that organizations can truly test their emergency plans and ensure that their staff members can respond properly to a crisis or disaster. The middle of a disaster is no time to test your plans.
Security is everyone’s responsibility. By engaging staff and employees and equipping them with the appropriate knowledge and skills, organizations can create a force multiplier. Staff members can contribute to their own safety and security and that of their organizations, visitors and guests.
Realistically, we must anticipate that the next plot may already be in the works, and next time we may not be so lucky as to have an informant infiltrate and ultimately disrupt a very real, homegrown terrorist attack. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the New York Police Department, and several other state and local law enforcement agencies are to be commended for their actions. In turn, we must do our part to get to know and assist our local law enforcement partners, train our staff, and do all we can as individuals and as a community to contribute to the safety and security of our institutions.
If there is one message I can convey, it is that the North American Jewish community cannot afford to let down its guard at any time in the near future. The world has changed; unlike previous periods of history, fortress America is a bygone era. We are, however, a strong, resilient community, and there are many measures we can and must implement to safeguard our most precious assets, our people.
We must make every attempt to approach this balance between security and openness in a spirit of calm and professionalism. The American Jewish community, in particular, is mindful of the need to balance vigilance and a determination to maintain the open, supportive atmosphere which represents the very purpose of our places of worship.
Paul Goldenberg is the national director of the Secure Community Network, an initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.