security situation

Jewish institutions in U.S. on high alert in wake of war

Security officials urging increased 'level of vigilance,' though holiday events to go on

Brandon Bell/Getty Images

A law enforcement vehicle sits near the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on January 16, 2022, in Colleyville, Texas.

Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israeli towns and fired thousands of rockets in an unprecedented surprise early morning attack on Saturday. As war continued to escalate on Saturday, with the number of Israelis killed rising to at least 250 and civilian hostages taken into Gaza, the country’s National Security Council urged Israelis to cancel celebrations scheduled for the remaining days of Sukkot. 

“Simchat Torah events and holiday-related gatherings, at this time, are liable to present targets for attack,” Israel’s National Security Council said in a statement. 

Meanwhile, U.S. security organizations told Jewish Insider that holiday festivities will continue as usual but that they are increasing security measures as hate crimes targeting diaspora Jews tend to spike when there is conflict in Israel. 

Richard Priem, COO of the Community Security Service (CSS), an organization that has trained more than 3,000 volunteers around the U.S. to protect synagogues and other Jewish institutions, told JI that the group has sent detailed guidance for the coming days and weeks as they are anticipating a heightened threat level on American Jews.   

“We’ve learned that whenever something like this happens, we need to be more alert,” Priem said. 

“As volunteers to do security at institutions and events, we learn first about chatter taking place on social media that might impact security situations on the ground, about protests planned,” Priem continued. “Almost always this ends up in an increase in incidents targeting the Jewish community. From the moment [war broke out], we alerted our teams that this was going on. We’ve discussed how to be proactive and work with law enforcement. You will see more security at the institutions that we protect.”  

Mitch Silber, the executive director of Community Security Initiative, a joint program of UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Community Relations Council of NY, said in a statement, “While there is no evidence of any related threats in metro New York, given that Saturday and Sunday are the concluding days of the holiday of Sukkot, we are advising Jewish institutions in the greater New York area to raise their level of vigilance. As we have seen during past conflicts between Israel and Hamas, there have been spontaneous eruptions of violence directed at Jewish communities that were triggered by conflict in the Middle East.” 

A spokesperson for the New York Police Department told JI, “We are aware of the situation and continue to monitor for further developments. At this time there is no known threat nor nexus to New York City.” New York is home to the largest Jewish population outside of Israel. 

Priem noted that as of Saturday, CSS is aware of at least one “unconfirmed report” of a demonstration against Israel slated to take place on Sunday in Manhattan. “It starts with one and always becomes more,” he said.

Still, he does not advise American Jews to skip Simchat Torah events Saturday night or Sunday out of fear.

On the contrary, Priem said he’s observed an increase in volunteers stepping up, noting that it’s more important than ever to celebrate as Israelis are unable to. “We’ve given [hundreds of synagogues] recommendations of how to increase security measures. We have not received any word of people canceling. We’ve seen massive responses from people saying, ‘My team needs me, I want to be involved and now I’m going to volunteer.’” 

“The ramifications this has in the U.S. is that it actually bolsters numbers of people providing security at their institutions.”

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