by Robert Kimmel & Barrett Seaman
Following the wave of anonymous bomb threats made against Jewish Community Centers in Westchester, along with similar threats to some 165 Jewish institutions across the country, local, state and federal authorities have joined with Jewish leaders to ratchet up security measures and reassure shaken members.
On March 6, Nita Lowey, Congresswoman for New York’s 16th District, convened a roundtable at the JCC on the Hudson in Tarrytown, where a dozen leaders representing Jewish Community Centers and related groups from Westchester and Rockland Counties described the impact of the threats on their members. “I think it’s time for action,” said Lowey.
Then on March 16, law enforcement officials ranging from the Department of Homeland Security to the Tarrytown Police Department outlined the security measures they are taking, including a nationwide hunt for culprits.
The JCC on Hudson bomb scare occurred in late February, when an unidentified caller using a disguised voice called at 9:10 a.m. warning of an explosive device on the premises. It was almost identical to one made at the mid-Westchester JCC in Scarsdale. A St. Louis man was subsequently arrested in connection with eight such threats. Then later in the month, based on electronic sleuthing by the FBI, Israeli authorities arrested a 19-year-old with dual American-Israeli citizenship who allegedly made many, if not most of the calls from his family’s home in Ashkelon in southern Israel, using sophisticated software to disguise his voice and location.
By month’s end, it was not known what, if any, connection there was between the two accused callers or whether they were part of a larger group responsible for threats across the country. To date, there has been no evidence of actual explosives on any of the premises.
Arrests or no arrests, bombs or no bombs, local Jewish leaders are not taking chances. The arrests, said JCC on the Hudson Executive Director Frank Hassid, “Don’t change anything.” Such events, he said, “merely highlight the need for security. We will be just as vigilant and mindful.”
At Lowey’s meeting, David Kirtschel, CEO of the JCC of Rockland County, noted that his as well as other JCCs were close to the New York Thruway, the Tappan Zee Bridge and the Hudson River, making them highly vulnerable to attack.
Several participants noted that the threats alone have had an impact on usage of the centers. Paul Adler, past president of the Rockland JCC, reported: “We have people pulling their children out of programs, fearing for their safety. As a result centers are losing vital sources of revenue. These deranged callers are exacting a price.”
“Our mission,” said Evan Pressman, Chair of the JCC on the Hudson Security Task Force at the March 16 meeting, “is to ensure that the total security system here at the JCC, the technology, protocols, equipment, training, and communications that protects students and staff are up to date and on par with national best practices.”
“Some of the measures we have identified can be achieved immediately,” Pressman said at the March 16 meeting, “[while] others must be effected over time. In our view, the response to the bomb threat was very well coordinated…very well executed and JCC faculty staff deserve our commendation and appreciation for that.”
Extensive consultations with security experts from law enforcement, the military, and the private sector, Pressman said, “have enabled us to reach three important conclusions: First, the equipment and protocols here at the JCC are sufficient to meet the threats as they currently exist. Two, there are no serious vulnerabilities or deficiencies in our current security system. And three, nothing that requires prompt action is so dire that our facility would be considered unsafe.” Nonetheless, he added that, in consultation with security firms, an assessment is being done and a full security plan “should be approved by the JCC Board by the end of June and implemented thereafter.”
State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, speaking for Governor Cuomo and state legislators, told attendees: “We are concerned and we are acting.” Albany, she reported, has established a $25 million grant designated for community centers, schools and other institutions to help with security and help with training.
“State Police are working to identify the problem, investigate the problem and bring people to justice,” Stewart-Cousins explained. “They also have a bias crime unit set up to probe such problems.” Some 120 professionals were undergoing intensive training on hate crimes, she said, and the legislature is considering legislation that would make threats against JCCs and other community centers with religious affiliations punishable as hate crimes. “There is a $5,000 reward if you offer information that leads to the arrest and prosecution of someone who has committed a hate crime,” Stewart-Cousins added.
Westchester County Public Safety Commissioner George Longworth, quoting County Executive Rob Astorino, described the threats as deplorable. “They should be of concern to all of us,” he said. Longworth noted that the FBI is the lead law enforcement organization investigating the threats and that county detectives have been assigned to work with the FBI Task Force. “The County,” Longworth said, “plans constantly for response to such incidents should they occur.” He explained that bomb squads have been trained for a variety of threats. Security cameras and other technologies, he said, are “used in real time in Westchester.”
Westchester County police also participate in Operation Safeguard, a counter-terrorism program Longworth said “enhances patrols around houses of worship, transit hubs and critical infrastructure on religious and national holidays.”
JCC Board member Susan Tolchin singled out Tarrytown’s government for praise, naming Mayor Drew Fixell, the Board of Trustees and a number of other village officials she credited helping with both in the construction of the JCC’s new facilities and in assisting at the time of the bomb threat. “We call, and in a minute they are here,” she said of the Tarrytown Police, describing them as “efficient and caring.”
Returning the compliment, Police Lieutenant and Tarrytown native John Barbelet told the gathering how impressed he was by the JCC staff, “how they conducted themselves and how cooperative they were, and how they did what they needed to do with the children.” Barbelet described his family’s deep attachment to the village in which he was born and raised and has served on the force for 23 years.
Barbelet stressed the ongoing nature of the village’s vigilance. “We are doing things every day,” he said, noting that a patrol car was in the JCC’s back lot as he drove in for the meeting. “Operation Safeguard started about four years ago, and we have never stopped,” the Lieutenant said. Tarrytown Police are not just patrolling designated locations on holidays and weekends. “We have taken the initiative to do this every day, seven days a week.” A security training session had taken place, he said, “yesterday, just across the street,” at the recently vacated El Dorado diner.
The Lieutenant drew a round of applause when he recounted the department’s response at the time of the threat. “Within eight minutes, we had six uniformed officers, four detectives and two Lieutenants down here on the property assisting the JCC with whatever had to be done,” Barbelet said. Within 20 minutes, County Police were on the scene with bomb detection dogs and technicians. The County detective assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force was there as well. “We were also in touch with the FBI and Homeland Security.”
Representing the federal government, Joe Tadrick, Protective Security Advisor for Homeland Security in the New York District, told the meeting that, “Our job is to go around to facilities such as yours, learn your vulnerabilities and help mitigate your vulnerabilities to make you safer in the process.” Referring to local law enforcement, he added: “Folks up here know what they are doing.” He reported that Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly “made it a priority for us to go and reach out to all the Jewish communities in our areas of operations and touch base with you folks.”
Referring to the rash of bomb threats nationwide, Tadrick said: “From an intelligence perspective …there were so many of them, it tells you right away that they are probably not real.” With rare exceptions, real terrorists, he said “…never tell somebody ahead of time they are going to bomb.”
As for anti-terrorist measures, Tadrick said, “There is a lot that goes on you will never see and you will never hear about.” For every incident we read about, he said, “there are nine you don’t. Your local Tarrytown Police Department is doing stuff you are not going to know about.” That said, he quickly added, “If you see something that doesn’t look right, you have to tell somebody; you have to be part of security.”
After the panel answered as many questions as there was time for, JCC board member Tolchin suggested that any further questions could be emailed to JCC Executive Director Hassid at (firstname.lastname@example.org).