Jerry "Dutch" Forstater knows a thing or two about security.
The 54-year-old native of the Olney section of Philadelphia has designed surveillance and communications systems for correctional facilities, courthouses, government buildings, hospitals and even nuclear power plants. Professional Systems Engineering, the Lansdale-based firm that he founded in 1986, is also currently a consultant for "perimeter security" at the Philadelphia International Airport.
Forstater likes to joke that he's spent more time in prisons than many inmates. (He noted that law-enforcement officials gave him his nickname.)
His work has taken him across the country many times and to numerous international destinations. But despite an expressed desire to visit the Jewish homeland, he'd never made it there — at least until earlier this year, when an opportunity came along that he couldn't pass up.
While he knew that Israel is one of the world's leaders in security — by necessity, unfortunately — he was still highly impressed with both the technological innovation and the all-important human know-how he observed.
"If you think you can capture a terrorist with software, it's not going to happen," said Forstater.
The 'Ultimate' Mission
Forstater, who holds a degree in engineering from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, was invited to travel to Israel on a law-enforcement related mission by Shurat Hadin, the Israel Law Center.
The center, which has an office in the United States, is a "Jewish legal-rights institute that was initiated in Israel as a response to the emerging rise in global Islamic violence," according to a statement on its Web site.
It further claims that the center's lawyers have taken on "the perpetrators and financial supporters of Islamic terror in the courtrooms of the law-abiding nations of the world."
The February mission Forstater took part in was called "The Ultimate Counter Terrorism Mission."
The Shaneson Consulting Group Inc., a New York-based homeland-security consulting firm, had asked the law center to organize such a mission on its behalf.
Normally, Shurat Hadin missions have focused more on how law and policy relate to terrorism; the security mission was a bit different, according to Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, director of the organization.
Along with roughly 30 other American law-enforcement officials and security personnel, Forstater was offered a behind-the-scenes look at how the Israelis conduct security and guard against terrorism at some of the country's most sensitive sites, including Ben-Gurion International Airport, Jerusalem's Old City and Israel's Supreme Court.
Darshan-Leitner explained that the center forwarded the participants' information to the Israel Defense Force in order for them to be fully vetted before gaining access.
"Ben-Gurion is probably one of the only civilian airports in the world that uses radar to watch for missiles launched at commercial aircraft," said Forstater.
The security expert is the quintessential techie; the Lansdale office he designed is practically a homage to audio-visual equipment. But he asserted that it's not better equipment that makes Ben-Gurion one of the world's most secure airports, it's the people who work there.
Specifically, he claimed that the Israeli technique of "behavioral profiling" — searching for potential terrorists who act, rather than just look, suspicious — goes a long way toward keeping air travelers safe.
Mission participants also visited the southern Gaza border and had an up-close look at the much-debated security fence along the West Bank, which Forstater insisted was a necessary response to suicide bombings. They also attended briefings with current and former officials in the Mossad and the IDF.
Although he was in the country less than three weeks, Forstater said that he detected a fundamentally different attitude within Israel's intelligence and security community than what is prevalent in the United States.
He claimed that the Israeli agencies concerned with counterterrorism seemed to cooperate far better with each other than their U.S. counterparts.
Rather than foster a culture of secrecy, he said that the American security and intelligence community needs to do a better job of conveying to the public the importance of its mission.
Also, he said that the visit to Israel had a profound impact on him as a Jew, even though he's not particularly observant. The father of three noted that his older two sons, ages 23 and 21, are planning to go on Birthright Israel trips this summer.
At the Western Wall, he said, "a rush came over me. Centuries of Jewish experience flashed through my head at lightning speed as I touched the stone. In Jerusalem, you could almost touch the clouds — it was as if God was right there."