In rabbinic school, I learned Torah.
During my five years of graduate studies, I studied midrash.
And over the course of my studies, I (tried) to learn Aramaic.
My rabbinic studies did not, however, include lockdown drills, security protocols, and trying to address a rapid rise in antisemitism. Thirty years ago, the need for such an “education” was inconceivable. Today, sadly, that is no longer the case. Hate and bias crimes in America have been on the rise, and since 2016, the ADL has tracked a spike in antisemitism in America that was inconceivable just a few years ago.
It is this rise in antisemitism and bias that has prompted us to make security a top congregational priority. In recent years we have taken steps and gone to the expense to help make sure that anyone who comes into our building for any reason is as safe and protected as they are welcomed and embraced.
The benefit of the work we’ve done was on display yesterday when word came from the FBI that there was a credible threat to synagogues in New Jersey. Within minutes we were in touch with the South Orange Police Department, and five minutes later, there were patrol cars in the parking lot of all three South Orange synagogues. Out of an abundance of caution, we decided to close the building early, and by the time Chief Morillo of the SOPD asked us to close, we had already done so. Throughout the afternoon, the communication with and support from our local and state officials was constant. They were helpful. They were direct. They were our partners. We also worked in partnership with Beth El and Oheb to help ensure the safety and well-being of the entire Jewish community. (I am grateful to Rabbis Olizky and Treu for being the partners and friends they are.)
All this is to say that while the general rise in hate—and in particular antisemitism—is both heartbreaking and infuriating, when such hate reared its head yesterday in the form of a credible threat, the system worked! Everyone did their jobs and worked to take quick, appropriate steps without succumbing to panic.
I want to personally thank my TSTI colleagues and our leadership. At times such as this, I am incredibly grateful to serve a community in which everyone works as partners toward the shared goal of building and strengthening our community.
Thank you to all who reached out with words of concern and support. It means more than you know.
And now the good news.
On a conference call with the Governor’s Office and various law enforcement agencies this morning, we were informed that the individual whose threat led to the FBI warning had been identified. As Special Agent Jim Dennehy of the FBI Newark Field Office stated,
“We have a high level of confidence that the subject of interest is, in fact, the individual who posed this threat. He no longer poses a threat to the community at this time, and we have no indication of any outstanding threat affiliated with him or this investigation.”
The FBI sent out its warning within minutes of the threat being verified. Within hours of the notification, they had identified and were interviewing the person suspected of being the threat. And less than a day later, law enforcement was able to ask us to remain vigilant, but feel comfortable knowing this particular threat was no longer an issue.
In other words, the system worked.
I wish I could tell you this was a one-off. I wish I could confidently say this was the only time we would have to take such actions. But, much as I want to, I honestly cannot say that in a world of growing hate.
But I can assure you we will not let our guard down.
I can promise you that the relationships we have built with the other local synagogues, law enforcement, and our elected officials are stronger than ever. And this allows us to respond to issues quickly and thoughtfully.
And I can reaffirm my pledge to you that the safety and well-being of each person who enters our building is our top priority.
I am pleased to say that, after consulting with Chief Morillo, we were able to put the security back into place, allowing us to offer services both in person AND on Zoom this evening. (If you attend in person, please make sure to thank officers and security personnel who are there.)
This Thursday, I will attend ADL’s Never is Now Conference on hate and antisemitism. The Conference is even more timely now than it was just 24 hours ago. I look forward to sharing some of what I learned with you next week. (There’s still time to attend!)
Finally, please note the building will be closed next week. This was planned last spring as a fall “work from home” week, and is in no way related to the issues of the last 24 hours.
Finally, I want to express my thanks to all of you. These are not easy times. Standing together as part of a strong, caring community doesn’t make the issues we face go away. Still, together, we will continue to support one another and reflect on what is possible when love and kindness are the rule rather than the exception.
Reb Nachman of Bratzlav taught:
“The world is a narrow bridge. The main thing is to not be afraid.”
The world does feel as if it is narrower these days. And we will not be afraid. But we will be prepared. And we will stand together. And we will continue to do the sacred work we are committed to doing.
Wishing a Shabbat Shalom to my TSTI Family,
Rabbi Daniel Cohen