September 22, 2005
Holidays, Arrests Add to Terror Fears
When she looks out from the bimah, Rabbi Zoe Klein of Temple Isaiah sees mostly known faces, but occasionally there is the odd or unknown person who could be trouble.
For such an occasion, Temple Isaiah and other Southern California synagogues have installed panic button-style buzzers that summon shul guards, much like a bank teller's silent alarm alerts police to a stickup. It is one of many security tools used when synagogues become very crowded, often with new faces, during the High Holidays.
Jewish community concerns over security have increased in recent months following the arrest and indictment of four men for allegedly planning attacks on local Jewish targets, including a synagogue and the Israeli consulate.
This case was the backdrop for a High Holidays security briefing held last week at the West Los Angeles headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). About 90 representatives from synagogues and Jewish institutions attended. Law enforcement officials said they knew of no specific upcoming threats and focused instead on prevention programs, such as Operation Archangel, a new, local multiagency anti-terrorism initiative.
"We can't get to every one of the synagogues and each one of the churches," LAPD Sgt. Jim Harpster, assigned to Archangel, told the gathering. "Anything that's unusual, please report it. There hasn't been an attack where somebody hasn't seen something."
Even without a specific threat, synagogue leaders must be alert to terrorism risks, while also keeping in mind longstanding threats arising from anti-Semitism. "California has perhaps the most active skinhead scene in the country," ADL investigative researcher Joanna Mendelson said.
Synagogues are not taking the matter lightly. Last year, the American Jewish Committee's Los Angeles office began work to set up an electronic early warning system linking local police and Jewish institutions. It's called the Secure Community Alert Network, or SCAN. It's operational in New York City, but hasn't yet needed to be used.
In Los Angeles, "right now it's sort of a work in progress," said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, executive director of the L.A. office of the American Jewish Committee, which is providing funding. "It just hasn't come forward as quickly as possible. Fortunately there hasn't been a need in L.A."
Many synagogues, like Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park, already have an internal form of such a system, by which someone on the bimah can press an emergency call button. The process adds one more necessary responsibility to the duties of rabbis and cantors.
"I see who walks through the door," Klein said. "I see if someone's reaching for their bag. Everyone in the congregation is facing forward. We're the only ones facing them who can see what's going on out there. It's not just about having security at the door for who comes in, but having a method of communicating once services are under way."
The task becomes trickier during the High Holidays as synagogues become crowded, often with new faces.
Whether the Homeland Security terror-threat level is at orange or yellow, security is a constant but quiet fact of life at Jewish institutions. In Bel Air, the University of Judaism merges its security efforts with neighbors Stephen S. Wise Temple across the street and the Casiano Bel Air Homeowners Association. Near Beverly Hills, the Wilshire Boulevard headquarters of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles uses large, potted sidewalk trees as decorous security barriers.
Further west down Wilshire is Westwood's Sinai Temple, where throngs of smartly dressed Conservative Jews will crowd into the expanded sanctuary for the High Holidays. The shul normally is home to about 1,500 families but over the High Holidays it will host an expected 5,000 worshippers, who will require extra seats, extra parking and extra guards, whose cost is over and above Sinai's estimated $300,000 annual security budget.
"On the High Holidays I pay another $37,000," Sinai Executive Director Howard Lesner said. His extended security contingent will include plainclothes, off-duty police officers. About 14 months ago, Sinai installed new security cameras.
"It's all digitalized now, all color," Lesner said. "We have one of the most secure institutions. We reduced our entrances to one way driving in and one way walking in."
But Lesner does not publicize all the particulars: "The greatest security is to not tell everybody what you're doing."