Visiting Chicago rabbi says he feels safer in Jerusalem

Following mail bomb plot, Rabbi Vernon Kurtz says Jewish leaders working with local police to up security.

311_Reform synagogue (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
311_Reform synagogue
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz enjoyed a peaceful Shabbat in Jerusalem, blissfully unaware that at his suburban Chicago synagogue, all of his congregants were talking about the packages apparently mailed by al- Qaida to two local congregations.
Kurtz, who is the rabbi of the North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois, and immediate past president of Merkaz Olami, the Conservative Movement’s worldwide Zionist organization, only heard about the scare when he opened his e-mail Saturday night at his second home in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood.
RELATED:Yemen: Woman suspected of mailing bombs released'Packages must be ‘profiled,’ just like passengers'In addition to e-mails from local and national Jewish organizations, Kurtz received one from a congregant, who asked him what was being done to ensure the synagogue’s security.
By the time Kurtz was able to write back, the synagogue began dealing with the situation by working together with police and instituting an arrangement for taking care of packages, so all Kurtz could do was respond to him with a note of irony.
“I feel more safe here than I would be there,” the rabbi wrote.
Kurtz said his synagogue has guards when its Hebrew school is in session and police protection for Shabbat evening and morning services. His office was careful with packages around the time of the Second Lebanon War and when there was an anthrax scare, but other than these occasions, does not act as if it is under a threat of any kind.
“We live in a world where things can happen anywhere, at any time,” he said.
“It is certainly ironic that I am here and I feel that I don’t have to worry about anything and then I hear what happened there after Shabbat,” Kurtz said.
Rabbi Leonard Matanky, the president of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, said he received a call from a law enforcement official on Friday afternoon telling him to alert neighborhood rabbis not to open suspicious packages.
He said there was increased police presence at his synagogue, KINS (Knesses Israel Nusach Sfard), in Chicago’s heavily Orthodox West Rogers Park neighborhood.
This was not the first time Matanky had to deal with the threat of terrorism. As the principal of Chicago’s prestigious Ida Crown Jewish Academy, he dealt with a bomb threat nearly two years ago. A Jordanian national who lived not far from the school was arrested for the threat.
“We are not scared at all,” Matanky said. “It was an awakening that a terrorist in Yemen could cross borders and threaten a synagogue in Chicago. It was more surreal than scary.”
Matanky said he did not know why Chicago was targeted, though he would not rule out the possibility that it was because it is the hometown of US President Barack Obama, who visited the city over the weekend.
Asked whether he would encourage his congregants to move to Israel in light of the fact that Chicago had joined Israel as a target of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, Matanky said he did not need an excuse for that.
“We should always be encouraging aliya – not just in times of trouble but also in times of celebration, joy, and peace,” he said. “I always feel safer in Jerusalem – not because of the added security, but because it’s Jerusalem.”