2017-04-26 / Voice at the Shore

Local Jewish leaders discuss security needs

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore editor


RABBI DAVID WEIS RABBI DAVID WEIS Security has not been an issue at Jewish gathering places in Atlantic and Cape May Counties—and the leaders of local Jewish organizations and synagogues would like to keep it that way.

Toward that end, leaders of numerous local synagogues and Jewish organizations came together for breakfast at the JCC earlier this month to talk about applying for grant funding from the State of New Jersey to help pay for enhanced security equipment, said Kirk Wisemayer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Atlantic and Cape May Counties, which organized the breakfast.

Around the beginning of April, Governor Chris Christie announced that a total of $1 million, given out in grants of up to $50,000 each, was being made available “to organizations that New Jersey’s Director of Homeland Security deems at high risk of a terrorist attack” in nine counties not eligible for federal security dollars. Those counties are Atlantic, Cape May, Camden, Burlington, Gloucester, Cumberland, Mercer, Salem and Warren Counties. Grant applications are due to New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness by May 24, and funding decisions will be announced July 7.

Concern, rather than fear, was the overriding feeling among Jewish leaders at the security breakfast, said Wisemayer. People felt “that we need to mitigate threats as much as possible, to be prepared,” he explained. “Everyone felt there was work to do,” but also that $1 million spread over nine counties would not likely provide local organizations with the full amount needed for their security enhancements.

The JCC in Margate and Congregation Beth Israel in Northfield and are among the local Jewish organizations planning to apply for grant funding to enhance their existing security systems.

“We’re making some major changes in the [JCC] building because of our obligation to make sure people who come to our building are safe,” noted Jack Fox, CEO of the JCC in Margate. “We’re hoping grant funding will cover this.”

Leaders of the JCC and other Jewish organizations at the breakfast said they would pursue security improvements whether or not they received grant funding noted Wisemayer. “Organizations in the Jewish community will investigate every possibility for funding even outside of state sources.” He added that both the Federation and JCC will be offering grant-writing assistance to all local organizations.

Beth Israel’s Rabbi David Weis, who attended the security breakfast, said his synagogue has an ongoing commitment to improving the security of its building. “We’ve actually been discussing this and meeting with local security people as well as Homeland Security representatives for the past two years,” said Weis, noting that Beth Israel has plans and equipment in place for dealing with an active shooter and bomb threats.

The synagogue also hires security for publicized events that draw large crowds, such as last month’s Purim celebration and its Broadway Bash fundraiser later this month. “We can’t afford an armed guard all the time, but we have them whenever there are events with lots of people where we could be a target for people wishing to make a statement,” said the rabbi.

Talk about security ran rampant at a rabbinical conference Weis recently attended in Atlanta. “I spoke to three rabbis who are armed on their bima,” he said, noting that some other rabbis said they had bullet-proof lecterns they could hide behind in the event of a shooting.

“We have an alarm system. If anything happens, we push a button to the Northfield Police Department and they will be there in 5 minutes,” he said.

According to Weis, the rabbis’ concerns about security are not a response to the recent JCC bomb threats, but rather to the shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston two years ago. This showed religious leaders “that anyone can walk into your place of worship, become part of your congregation, then start shooting at you. Dylann Roof [the 21-year-old white supremacist shooter] would have killed fewer people if someone at the AME church had been armed. But I’m not sure that more guns are the answer.”

Likewise, Beth Israel and other local organizations want to avoid creating a “bunker mentality.”

As Wisemayer noted, “The Jewish community is committed to the security of its members and mindful of the fact that we don’t want to make access to community institutions difficult. We all want to remain welcoming.” 

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