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Terrorist Threat Prompts Exam of Security

November 4, 2010
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A selection of British newspapers report the attempted bomb plot that sparked security alerts here and abroad. Getty Images

In response to last week's revelation of terrorist plots involving synagogues in Chicago through air-mailed explosives, a number of Philadelphia Jewish facilities have enhanced slightly or maintained the status quo of their security standards, according to a random sampling of area synagogues and organizations.

At Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, "we have had in place a package-receipt system for more than 10 years," said Harvey Friedrich, the synagogue's executive director.

Meaning, he added, "we do not accept packages or merchandise from strange, unfamiliar addresses."

Their security practice -- which includes "buzzing in" visitors, who can be viewed at the entrance on the shul's video system -- "is near completion of a major upgrade, thanks to a grant from Homeland Security. When it's completed, we'll be state-of-the-art."

The two bomb packages that began the nationwide security reassessments at Jewish institutions and at airports throughout the world originated in Yemen. The packages, which contained explosive-packed printer cartridges, were both intercepted -- one on a plane in Dubai and the other on a plane in London. Al Qaeda is believed to be behind the plot, and the FBI is now saying that both explosives were meant to be detonated while the planes were in flight.

The FBI also announced this week that no synagogues exist at the addresses on the packages, yet still urged the need for continued vigilance.

Officials from both the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have begun consulting with Jewish organizations across the country about security measures.

After the bombs were discovered, a Homeland Security team arrived Sunday in Chicago, according to Paul Goldenberg, national director of the Secure Community Network, the national agency for Jewish communal security. SCN operates under the auspices of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

"We don't know when the bombs were intended to go off, but the fact remains they were going after American Jews, not Israeli consulates," he said. "They targeted American synagogues. That was the message."

Beth Sholom is one of a number of area institutions that received Homeland Security grants, issued in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, to upgrade security at religious and other institutions.

For its part, the Gershman Y on the Avenue of the Arts in Center City has "a new safety policy of accepting packages only from familiar addresses," said Sherry N. Rubin, the site's executive director. "Our building itself is very secure, but we have enhanced our security policy when it comes to accepting mail, for instance, for our film festival," much of which comes from overseas.

Overall, she added, "we follow procedures advised" by the Anti-Defamation League, which has printed guidelines for dealing with security precautions; on Tuesday, the group reissued advisories nationwide.

During a national teleconference, Steven Sheinberg, director of ADL's community security program, stressed how "important it is to understand the provenance of packages delivered."

"Awareness is critical," he said during the call, which also featured a representative of the FBI discussing ways to remain vigilant.

What happens, though, if an organization or synagogue does not have sufficient funds to support a viable security system?

"Our philosophy," Sheinberg said, "is that a majority of measures are low-cost, and that there are easy things to do to keep your institution" safe.

The Jewish Community Services Building in Center City -- headquarters for a number of organizations, including the Jewish Publishing Group, and owned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia -- issued an update to its security practices on Monday.

The Federation "has been in touch with local and national contacts within the Jewish community and law-enforcement since the news first broke at noon on Friday regarding suspected activities using cargo as a means for terrorism," said Domenic Vallone, director of operations.

In the issued memo, Vallone brought attention to procedures already established -- including rejecting "delivery of any mail or package that does not include a return address."

For those packages that "have a discernible return address and pass through our initial screening," he continued, the responsibility is on the recipient "to make a vigilant and careful discernment as to whether that letter or parcel is expected."

The current expectation is that everyone is pursuing "heightened sensitivity and cooperation in maintaining current protocol for the sake of the safety of all."

ADL's Sheinberg said that now that the first wave of emergency information has gone out, it's time for the Jewish community nationwide to regroup and engage in a careful, ongoing reassessment of each institution's security measures.

"Our security messages are very measured," he said. "Our goal is to inform, not panic. There is no need for panic. This is an occasion to look at security measures in place, make adjustments as necessary and move forward."

For security guidelines, log on to: www. adl.org/security or www.scnus.org.

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