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High Security Holidays

Jewish leaders are finding ways to deter and prevent crimes from occurring at synagogues.


by Mike Levy

August 29, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Last Sunday, a bomb squad van, police cars and fire trucks rushed to Temple Beth Torah in Culver City.

Last Yom Kippur, a car crashed into a small synagogue on Pico Boulevard, and off-duty police officers immediately evacuated the nearby B'nai David-Judea.

While both incidences turned out to be false alarms -- in Culver City someone had thrown out smoking dry ice, and the driver of the car that crashed into the Pico synagogue had suffered a heart attack -- it shows, nonethless, that everyone's on high alert.

With the High Holidays upon us, now coinciding as they often will with the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and ongoing violence in Israel, the buzzword among Jewish leaders is "proactive." Fifth District City Councilman Jack Weiss uses it when describing the meetings he has led with synagogues, police and political leaders. Rabbis and synagogue administrators use it when describing security precautions they are implementing. The message is, there have been no threats or warnings of danger, but Jewish institutions are well prepared, just in case. As Anti-Defamation League (ADL) regional director Amanda Susskind says of a recent security meeting, "The motto for the day was vigilance, not panic."

"In some cases it's as simple as installing some cameras. Be aware that shrubbery can be a hindrance to security," Susskind says. "It has to be tailored to the institution. We are asking people to be vigilant on behalf of their synagogue or the institutions they belong to. Like a Neighborhood Watch on a bigger scale."

The ADL's director of security, Bob Martin, advises Jewish institutions and facilities on "target hardening -- making the facility as unattractive as possible to people looking for trouble." Martin also stressed the importance of congregants being alert in the coming weeks, even though their synagogues have security plans. "Security is everybody's business. It's not like an umbrella -- you don't just put it up when you think it's going to rain."

He also emphasized, "The time to find out who is the head of your local police division is not when you have a crisis."

Rabbi Denise Eger has not waited for a crisis. Her Congregation Kol Ami holds two High Holiday services which fall under two different law enforcement jurisdictions. At the congregation's new building in West Hollywood, they have found sheriff's deputies "extremely responsive, extremely helpful" in planning for the holidays; the larger rented-for-the-holidays facility in Hollywood is patrolled by the LAPD, who have been "outstanding" as well. "We have been in regular contact with our sheriffs," she says, and notes the added benefit of having LAPD Deputy Chief David Kalish as a congregant.

"This is obviously a year of great concern," admits Howard Lesner, executive director of Sinai Temple. Yet Lesner is comfortable with his temple's increased security -- including 24-hour guards, no parking anywhere around the synagogue and just single points of entry by car and by foot. "We've managed to do that without turning it into a prison," he says. "We have a direct relationship with the police, our security company is owned by police officers. If a police officer wants a cup of coffee, or to use the restroom, he knows Sinai is a good place to go."

Developing and strengthening the relationship between Jewish institutions and law enforcement was a major topic at the University of Judaism in August, when the ADL joined Weiss, L.A. Mayor James Hahn and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and the Bureau of Jewish Education in leading a security forum geared toward the High Holidays. FBI Assistant Director Ron Iden addressed the group, as did the ADL's Martin and LAPD Deputy Chief Willie Pannell.

"Historically, we've been involved with the Jewish community around the High Holidays," says Pannell, who was recently named deputy chief of operations-South Bureau. On September 11, he was still in his previous position of commander of the criminal intelligence bureau, which includes anti-terrorism. "Los Angeles has a large and prominent Jewish community, where a terrorist could get the most bang for the buck, if you want to use that expression," he says.

With Jewish community experience dating back to his days as a street cop, working the Pico-Robertson area and serving as an off-duty security officer at Wilshire Boulevard Temple for many years, Pannell has particular respect for the Museum of Tolerance, where Police Academy trainees are sensitized to the needs of the Jewish community. Because of this, and because of strong outreach and support from the Jewish community, he says, "There's an awareness on the part of the street officer, a view that this is a serious concern, not just a community requesting something extra." Specifically, Pannell says. "What we've done over the years [is] to gear up during the summer, meet with local rabbis and prominent organizations. We're telling our captains to be aware, particularly around prominent synagogues, to beef up with extra patrols, meet with Jewish leadership. We talk to them about private security, lighting, watching the packages that come in, entrances and exits."

"It's a challenging yom tov," says Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, "It was challenging last year. We want to make our Jewish institutions warm, welcoming places -- tempered with practical concerns."

Susskind sounds a note of hope: "Last year, we were all in a state of shock. I don't think there was as careful planning as has been possible this year," she says. "At least on the West Coast, there was still a measure of disbelief that it could happen here. Then, the July 4 shooting at LAX. The rise in anti-Semitism around the world is also causing concern. And as the year unfolded and the conflict in Israel intensified, we have yet another cause for concern." The way Susskind sees it, "We've learned a lot in the past year."

Or, as Diamond says, "Things are in hand, let's do what Jews do this time of year."

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