Jewish communities in Westchester County and surrounding areas are reviewing what steps they can take to make their congregants safer in the wake of an increase in anti-Semitic attacks around the country.
Rabbi David Reiner of Congregation Shir Shalom in Ridgefield, Conn., issued a statement to his congregation after the recent attacks in Monsey, N.Y. during the week of Chanukkah, telling them not to be concerned, but said he could imagine a colleague in that community sharing the same sentiment to their community just a few weeks ago.
“As I seek to offer reassurance with the words ‘no indications of an increased threat,’ I am struck by how unsettling this statement has become,” Reiner said. “The randomness of the violent anti-Semitic attacks in our region is especially unsettling at a moment when many are seeking reassurance and comfort.”
The United States has seen an increase of anti-Semitic attacks that has left Jewish communities across the country shaken.
According to Johnathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, since 2014 there has been a significant increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S.
In October 2018, a shooter stormed the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in Pittsburgh during a Saturday Shabbat service and opened fire, leaving 11 dead and six injured.
In California, the shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue left one dead and three injured.
In December, there was an attack a Jewish grocery store in Jersey City, N.J., which left six dead.
Then, eight separate attacks took place during the week of Chanukkah in New York, including a home invasion at a rabbi’s house where a man wielding a machete left five injured.
In September, NYPD data showed that there was a 51 percent increase in anti-Semitic attacks in New York City from the same time the year before.
“All of us have been affected by the attacks that have taken place over the past years,” said Rabbi Robert Weiner of Temple Beth Am in Yorktown. “We have definitely seen a surge of worry of anti-Semitic attacks ever since Pittsburgh. Monsey is part of a much broader surge of anti-Semitism that’s going on.”
Rabbi David Greenberg of Temple Shaaray Tefila in Bedford Corners expressed his concern about the growing hate in the country.
“I’m very concerned about it and I think all good people, as Americans, we stand for equality, acceptance, respecting differences and I think all good people find this string of horrific episodes a great compromise to our society and all that we stand for,” Greenberg said.
Larry Kaufman, commander of the Jewish War Veterans Post 46 in Somers and his wife, Marilyn, said though frightened, the Jewish community must remain strong. Marilyn Kaufman said that the rise of social media also contributed to the growing anti-Semitism in the country.
“Today with social media, things are out there, everybody sees and there are copycats and to be very honest, a lot of the Jewish population is worried,” she said. “They’re strong, but they’re worried. They’re cautious now. There were men, especially in WWII, that saw what anti-Semitism can do. That’s part of the issue—the fact that young people today didn’t experience the terrible things that happened in the 1930s and ’40s.”
Larry Kaufman said that even small synagogues have had to take precautions, hiring armed security guards.
“We hate to go to this extreme, but it seems like it’s necessary,” Larry Kaufman said. “It has gotten to a point where we’re fearful that an incident might happen that would be very dramatic and maybe lives would be taken, such as what happened in Pittsburgh and other places in the United States.”
Security measures have increased in synagogues over the last few years and with the recent attacks.
“Needless to say, this new trend is disturbing to all peace-loving citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike,” said Rabbi Yehuda Heber of the Chabad of Yorktown. “While it calls for greater security measures, which we as a congregation are certainly implementing, there are other messages for us here, as well.
“As a nation, Jews are no strangers to persecution,” Heber added. “Throughout history and despite any adversity that came our way, we have remained proud of our identities and heritage. Discussions in our congregation have centered around the Jewish pride and courage that has accompanied us through the ages and to the present day.”
The United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Federation of New York hosted a community discussion on anti-Semitism and how to combat hate on Wednesday, Jan. 8, in White Plains.
Audrey Stein, regional director of the UJA, said that $4 million over the next two years will be spent to enhance the physical security of approximately 2,000 Jewish institutions in the New York area including Westchester.
They have also employed Mitchell D. Silber as the community security director. Silber was previously the director of the NYPD’s Intelligence Analysis Unit.
Currently, about half a dozen temples or more in Northern Westchester and Putnam County have formed a Regional Security Council and meet once a month to discuss security measures.
Doree Green, first vice president of Temple Beth Am and security chair said that while it’s challenging, there’s a much larger Jewish community that has been bonded and the interfaith community has shown its support.
“In the past, who would think to lock a door during services? You want those doors open,” she said. “For High Holy Days, we’ve revamped security completely to make sure we had whatever scenarios we could come up with covered. “We’ve looked at the day to day activities and said, ‘how do we make sure we’re keeping everybody as safe as possible?’”
Gabe Lomas, chair of the Regional Security Council, said that after the shooting of the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, people became concerned about security. The council has been discussing putting certain practices in place to stop crises before they occur.
“I just proposed to some of the synagogues in our region that we develop a safety and security recon committee and we’ve been meeting once a month for over a year now—just sharing information, trying to build intelligence and finding areas of strengthening among our organization and making sure we can be as prepared and ready for threats as they come to us,” Lomas said.
Temple Beth Am even held Civilian Response to Active Shooter Event, or CRASE, training in its synagogue last June.
Synagogues are reviewing the resources available to them to deploy security measures, including working with the state and local police.
In fact, it’s the local police that have shown tremendous support. Temples in Somers, Yorktown, Ridgefield and Bedford Corners all said they work in conjunction with local law enforcement to ensure the safety of congregants.
Outspoken support from the community has also helped Jewish communities feel safer.
“It feels, even though you’ve got this one bad actor, like the community has been very vocal and united in speaking against any intolerance and hatred in our community,” Green said.
The UJA Federation organized the No Hate No Fear march on Sunday, Jan. 5, and thousands came out to attend the rally and march across the Brooklyn Bridge.
“It was very powerful that 25,000 people came together on a Sunday morning, with very little notice, to stand up and be counted and say, ‘we’re not going to be afraid and we’re not going to accept hate’,” Stein said.
Building relationships with the community and educating the public on anti-Semitism is another approach that synagogues have taken to maintain safety.
“We may also respond to ignorance by teaching others as brand ambassadors for our Jewish community, inviting our neighbors to Congregation Shir Shalom to show that Judaism is not ‘other,’” Reiner said. “We also find strength in coming together, in witnessing that we are not alone in experiencing the power of organized people.”
Lomas, who is a professor at Western Connecticut State College, emphasized community building and understanding as powerful tools in combating hate.
“The answer is not just in hardening our buildings, we also have to build greater understanding among members of the community,” Lomas said. “The key to reducing violence in any area is relationships. We have to understand each other better.”
Rabbi Shoshanna Leis of the Hebrew Congregation of Somers said making people feel safe is a top priority and building relationships with the interfaith community helps combat growing hate.
“We are always fighting anti-Semitism through building our relationships because the best way to fight hate is through love, community building, and connection,” Leis said.
She also echoed the sentiments of Martin Luther King Jr. and said that the path of non-violence is the best approach.
Over the past weeks, local governments have issued proclamations condemning acts of hate, especially those of anti-Semitism.
Local, county and state officials have also come forward to speak out about anti-Semitism.
“I’m so thankful to be in this community that there is such an outspoken response to this,” Green said. “There are some communities when there are these acts, they keep them very hushed and we discussed that in that Regional Security Council.
We see some of the towns keeping things very quiet and I think when they are kept quiet it’s almost like the leaders of those towns are complicit because they’re not speaking out and there are no repercussions to these acts.”
The outspoken response and outrage has been reassuring in uncertain times.
“We’re all in this together and I really believe that an attack against any group of people is an attack against all of us and the ideals which we believe,” Greenberg said.