Holiday security levels run the gamut at Manhattan synagogues

Even though some reports say threats to New York synagogues during the Jewish High Holy Days may be decreasing, the situation in Syria and the wider Middle East has kept concerns, and security levels, heightened.

Temple Emanu-el in New York 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Temple Emanu-el in New York 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
NEW YORK – Security for the High Holy Days at the Fort Tryon Jewish Center, a small Conservative minyan in northern Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, consists of a smiling ticket-taker at the front door of a high school auditorium (the center’s own building is under construction).
He is happy to let you in even if you don’t have a ticket – just make sure you pay for your membership after the holidays! No police in sight, no wires dangle from any ears, no pockets bulge in a distinct L-shape.
By contrast, don’t try to get into Temple Emanu-El on the Upper East Side for Erev Rosh Hashana services without a ticket. It may not be as stringent as getting through Ben-Gurion Airport’s interrogations, bag searches and patdowns, but the several police officers who happened to be on the corners of Fifth Avenue and 65th street aren’t there for decoration.
Neither are the pair of large, be-suited, probably-not-Jewish men with white flowers on their lapels and wires in their ears standing right in front of the entrance, or the four more behind the roped stanchions just inside, or the dozen or so others hanging about in the lobby. The number of these casual High Holy Day bystanders approximately doubled for the next morning’s services, along with an additional NYPD van parked at another nearby corner.
Emanu-El, one of the oldest Reform Jewish congregations in the US (founded in 1845) and one of the biggest in New York, boasts members such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and occasional guests such as Israel’s counsel-general in New York Ido Aharoni.
For many synagogues around the US, things become intense this time of year as Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Secure Community Network and the Orthodox Union prepare for the holidays and begin advertising “best practices” for protecting a congregation. Even though some reports say threats may be decreasing, the situation in Syria and the wider Middle East has kept concerns, and security levels, heightened.
Between 2011 and 2012, there was a 14 percent decline in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States.
Further, in September 2012, when Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur fell in the middle of the month, the number of incidents of vandalism of Jewish institutions was at one of the lowest levels for that year, with only three reported cases; the highest number were in August and October, with nine and eight, respectively.
ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman said earlier this year that it was “encouraging” to see a “fairly consistent decline” in vandalism.
He added, however, that “we must remain vigilant in responding to [the incidents].”
Unfortunately for New York, the state with the largest Jewish population in the US, the opposite was true: Incidents went up 27 percent from 195 in 2011 to 248 in 2012; it was the only state in the union to see an increase.
At a police briefing with Jewish clergy members on August 27, community leaders told officers that concerns over the situation in the Middle East were raising worries at home. New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly promised heavily armored Hercules vehicles for “key buildings, hotels and other structures,” but told reporters later that he had no intelligence that New York would be under heightened threat if the US were to strike Syria.
And almost every year, there’s another Middle East threat to be concerned about.
In July 2012, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced a renewal of $3 million in grants from the US Department of Homeland Security for houses of worship; 42 Jewish organizations and one Catholic church received up to $75,000 each, in part due to rising tensions with Iran at the time.
For some, this level of security around the Jewish holidays is routine.
“There’re always threats,” said Harry, an older man who did not give his last name but identified himself as the head of Emanu-El’s security. “I’ve been doing this job for 25 years. This place is covered 24-7. We know our weak spots, and we fortify them.
We know physically what direction threats can come from, and we can dismantle them. This is a routine job.”
Harry would not confirm whether the amount of security around this time of year increased. “That would be like Obama revealing details of all his plans,” he joked.
“Then everyone else would be like, oh, okay, now we know what to do.”
The New York Police Department’s House of Worship patrol is another staple on which many synagogues depend for their security.
David K. Rosen, a former captain with the NYPD and head of the HOW patrol for many years, said that one patrol car in each precinct is designated to circle the block three times during one shift to check the area. “They [the on-duty officers] are supposed to go in and introduce themselves to the rabbi, and ask what they need,” Rosen said. “We set up the car and any concrete barriers they need.
“I won’t say synagogues get more attention than anyone else,” he paused, and echoed Harry’s words, “There are always threats. Of every type that you can imagine. The NYPD goes out of its way to protect and respond to appropriately to the level of threat.”
No other synagogue agreed to comment on its security procedures. The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.