February 20, 2003
Fear & Duct Tape in Los Angeles
Color-coded warnings sparks increase in vigilance, but no targets identified.
When the U.S. Homeland Security Advisory System was raised to Code Orange on Feb. 7, indicating a high risk of a terrorist attack, the anxiety level of the Jewish community in Los Angeles rose with it.
"Our office staff was a lot more anxious that day, to say the least," said Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood.
He said parents also expressed apprehension about sending their children to the temple's various school programs. In response, Tifereth Israel has increased its security.
"In the last few days, we have added more guards on a round-the-clock basis and more on Shabbat, and also tightened security for our children," Bouskila reported. "Just like after Sept. 11, parents were concerned, and we have tried to calm them as best we can."
Although the orange security alert may be downgraded to yellow -- an elevated threat with significant risks of terrorist attacks -- the likelihood of an impending war with Iraq and the continued North Korean nuclear standoff mean that most Jewish organizations in Los Angeles are investigating and/or implementing increases in security and taking other precautions.
In the San Fernando Valley, synagogues and schools from Valley Beth Shalom in Encino to Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills are also beefing up security and altering procedures to prepare for possible terrorist attacks. Many Valley institutions already have staffed trained in emergency procedures, stemming from the shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in 1999 and further underscored by Sept. 11. But the change in alert status brought on a new urgency to keep the Jewish community safe.
At Aliyah, for example, the synagogue has doubled the number of security guards on duty and issued parking passes so nonmember cars can be easily identified.
"I actually feel less threatened as a Jew than I do as an American," said Temple Aliyah Preschool director Randi Riddle. "I feel safer at the synagogue than I do at the mall."
In addition to current emergency plans, Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge and Heschel West in Agoura Hills are both investigating procedures in in the case of airborne (e.g., chemical) attacks, said Shirley Levine and Jan Saltsman, the heads of schools.
At Kadima Hebrew Academy in Woodland Hills, principal Barbara Gereboff said teachers and parents recently reviewed their "lock-down" procedures, so everyone would be familiar with the chain of events should the area come under attack. And on Wednesday, Milken Community High School held a teach-in on the subject of war (see story page 13).
While no specific Los Angeles targets have been identified, Jewish community leaders continue to maintain the need for vigilance.
"With the alert given by the government, you must take it seriously, whether there is anything specific or not," said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. He said The Federation had not been contacted by the FBI or any other government agency, but continues to stay in periodic discussions with local law enforcement.
"They check in with us on anything we have heard," Fishel said, "and we ask them about anything they might have heard."
Following the raise in the terrorist threat level to Code Orange, Israeli Consul General Yuval Rotem reported that the Los Angeles consulate experienced a jump in the number of e-mails and phone calls seeking security advice.
"People were trying to learn from the Israeli experience how to be prepared for an emergency," Rotem said, adding that calls came in not only from synagogues and Jewish agencies, but from the non-Jewish community, as well.
In addition to contacting the consulate, government organizations at various levels have been requesting advice from or, in some cases, even visiting Israeli agencies to learn how the Jewish state deals with the terrorist problem. Ron Iden, FBI associate director in Los Angeles, said Monday that he had just returned from a trip to Tel Aviv with police commissioners from across the United States.
Although the nation is on alert, Iden said that there are no specific targets among Los Angeles' Jewish communal organizations at this time.
"What the government has done is put out [notice of] what kinds of targets Al-Qaeda has attacked in the past and what our intelligence says they have considered targets, but it is, unfortunately, a very broad spectrum," Iden said.
"I think the best advice is that everyone needs to be alert to any suspicious activity," he said. "If something just doesn't look right to you, if you see a group of individuals sitting in a car taking pictures or taping videos, contact the local authorities."
"If you can obtain a license plate number, that goes a long way to tracking down anyone perceived as suspicious, to see if their activities are suspicious or not," Iden said. "From what I've seen, the Jewish community is certainly quite alert. Security at synagogues and community centers has been enhanced, and that, with increased alertness, is all you can do."
Representatives of the three most prominent local Jewish organizations -- the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) -- agreed that the threat of a possible attack should be taken seriously.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, said that this is especially true in light of the recent messages by Osama bin Laden, aired over the Arab-language Al-Jazeera satellite television station, urging Iraqis to back Saddam Hussein and carry out attacks against Americans and Israelis.
"It is no secret that, because of [bin Laden's] commentary, Jewish institutions could be targeted," Cooper said. "That is reality, not a matter of panic."
"On the one hand," he said, "we should not be afraid to carry on our personal and communal lives. On the other hand, this is an unconventional war with no rules, and we know that any location can be the front line. So a certain degree of anxiety is understandable."
Amanda Susskind, ADL West Coast regional director, said her organization is currently serving a dual function, "both to help people assess their security needs and to allay their fears with regard to false rumors." She said that fear-mongering rumors regarding possible targets of terrorism need to be checked out.
"Not that I think the threat is being exaggerated," Susskind said. "I am sure there is a threat, and to the extent we are all in heightened mode, we in the Jewish community should be vigilant."
"But people think that that just because we have gone up a level, that maybe that means there is something specific to fear, and that is not necessarily the case," Susskind said. "The code is not intended to create widespread panic."
For the most part, raising of the terrorist threat level to Code Orange has received greater attention on the East Coast. According to New York Jewish Week, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York warned area synagogues, Jewish schools, community centers and hospitals last week to upgrade security for their buildings' ventilation, heating and air-conditioning systems to deal with the possibility of a chemical or biological attack.
New York hotels owned by Jews were also rumored to be targets, although ADL National Director Abraham Foxman told Jewish Week that the FBI has provided no specific information about Jewish institutions or businesses.
Rep. Brad Sherman of Sherman Oaks, who was recently appointed the top Democrat on the new House International Terrorism Subcommittee, said he is more concerned with the threat from across the Pacific than the impending war with Iraq.
"My fear is of North Korea selling weapons or plutonium to terrorist organizations," Sherman said. "It's not that North Korea is ambitious for power, it is simply desperate for survival. They will keep the first few weapons [of mass destruction] for themselves, but bomb No. 6 will be on eBay."