Homeland Security runs drills with Jewish leaders

By Emma Silvers

About 50 Jewish federation officials from around the country gathered near Washington, D.C., last week for a “milestone” private security briefing with high-ranking federal and state law enforcement officials.

The Sept. 5 meeting at an undisclosed location in Rosslyn, Va. marked the first time national security officials have organized such a meeting for any faith-based community. It was timed ahead of the High Holy Days, when officials say Jewish organizations must unfortunately be especially vigilant about security issues.

“The federal government recognizes that we live in very uncertain times internationally, and their goal is to make sure that we are as prepared as we can be,” said Jennifer Gorovitz, CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, who attended the briefing alongside new COO Marsha Hurwitz. “It’s very significant and meaningful to me that the government wants to be so deeply involved with the readiness and preparedness of the Jewish community.”

Though the content of the day’s conversations was confidential, the JTA reported that the program began with a current threat assessment by government officials, followed by an emergency situation simulation of two scenarios: attacks on Israeli and Jewish communities throughout the diaspora, and on Jewish institutions in the United States.

The meeting officially was titled the Joint Department of Homeland Security–American Jewish Community Table Top Exercise. Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and Rand Beers, undersecretary for the department, were both present, along with about 50 federal and state law enforcement officials.

“This was not just another briefing,” Paul Goldenberg, national director of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Secure Community Network, told JTA. He called it a “milestone event” that lasted five hours.

Gorovitz said her two main takeaways were that communication among the organized Jewish community and the Department of Homeland Security “has never been at a higher level, and communication among Jewish organizations has never been better, either.”

The S.F.-based federation funds a full-time director of community security, Allan Lavigne, who is overseen by Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. Lavigne’s services — which he tailors to different types of congregations, schools and other Jewish organizations — are available to any Bay Area Jewish organization that wants extra help, said Gorovitz.

Over the next few months, Lavigne will lead a team in initiating a text message–based, community-wide alert system.

Across the bay, the security task force of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay is headed up by Riva Gambert, who is also director of the Partnership for Israel. Though no one from that federation attended the briefing in Virginia, Gambert and staff members meet with local law enforcement officials several times a year. An annual pre–High Holy Days meeting on Sept. 11 included police officers and discussions about security measures in the coming weeks.

“Of course there’s increased visibility to the Jewish community around major holidays … but best practices are things people can do, should be aware of 24/7, 365 days a year,” Gambert said.

She added that it was important for the Jewish community to have a “non-crisis” relationship with local law enforcement, so people feel comfortable asking for help — and know whom to ask — when the need arises.

She also said it was important for people at Jewish gatherings and facilities to be the first line of security.

“Simple things like being aware of who enters your facility,” Gambert said, “or if you don’t recognize someone in your building, asking ‘Hi, can I help you?’ ”