By Larry Gordon
Three days of no cell phones and no automobiles for strictly observant Jews in these parts is a change of pace that has local police and other security agencies paying close attention to our communities. The concern is about security over the yamim tovim, specifically during these upcoming two days of Rosh Hashanah followed immediately by Shabbos. That’s three days of shul and an increased presence on the streets of this and many other similar communities.
At a meeting for community leaders held at Lawrence Village Hall last Friday, Mayor Martin Oliner opened by saying, “We live in troubled times” and that he is plainly concerned about our safety, particularly over the next few weeks. Nassau County DA Kathleen Rice was present, as was interim Police Chief Thomas Krumpter, to discuss steps being taken to keep the community safe during these trying times when terror threats seem to be on the rise.
Both agreed that law enforcement cannot do the job alone. “The people are the first line of defense,” the commissioner said, reiterating the well-known campaign to keep citizens safe, saying, “Be suspicious of anything left unattended,” and, “If you see something, say something.”
DA Rice said that her office has been vigilant on the matter of hate crimes and has been working closely with the JCRC on Long Island, which has increased the rewards for information about those seeking to perpetrate hate crimes.
Commissioner Krumpter said that rabbis and Jewish leaders need to urge their congregants not to be complacent. He also said he is more concerned about the possibility of a terror attack in this country at this time than at any time in the last decade. The commissioner assured those assembled–and through them, the community at large–that this year there would be unprecedented security measures. He listed some of the steps being taken, but not all the details can be published. In addition to increased patrols, there will be a significant increase in the number of unmarked cars and plainclothes police officers in the area over the holidays.
The Nassau County Police Department is working hand-in-hand with the New York City Police Department, the NYPD Intelligence Division, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI’s Joint Terror Task Force, as well as Nassau County’s own 100-person Special Investigation Unit. One of the local officials present asked about the stationing of a police officer at every shul but was told that the department simply does not have the personnel to provide that kind of service. Nassau County has the twelfth-largest police force in the U.S., with 2,200 officers. New York City currently has 35,000 police personnel, followed by Chicago with 12,000 and Los Angeles with 10,000.
At one point, a discussion ensued about how Europe is handling the threat of terror at synagogues and other Jewish institutions there. One meeting participant said that every shul in Europe either has a police officer or a member of the military present outside. It was suggested that if there are not enough police personnel in the county, we should contact the governor’s office about assigning National Guardsmen to our streets over the holidays. The consensus was that such a measure is not called for at this time. Others countered that we do not want to wait for something drastic to happen in order to take these additional security steps.
Several other interesting issues were discussed privately amongst those present at the meeting. For example, the police urge residents who think they see something suspicious to call either 911 or a special police number that will be answered 24 hours a day by a Nassau County police detective–516-573-7720. The matter raised internally, especially in the Orthodox community, is that we do not carry our cell phones on yom tov or Shabbos and are prohibited from using any kind of phone or electrical device unless there is a life-threatening or medical emergency.
On this issue, one of the meeting attendees turned to one of the rabbis present and said the rabbinical leaders had to issue a decision on the use of phones in non-medical matters, to clarify what is permitted and what is not. The discussion involved whether there should be people–other than doctors who usually carry cell phones–designated to have a phone at the ready in case of an emergency. This is a matter on which it is doubtful that the rabbis will be able to reach a halachic consensus by the time yom tov arrives. There is little hesitancy to use phones when it involves a medical situation concerning one person; in this case, in this day and age, the matter to be considered entails scores of people potentially in danger.
Surprisingly, the one thing not suggested or recommended was for individual shuls to hire private security personnel to monitor nearby activity over the next few days. Several larger shuls in town have private security in the form of off-duty Nassau County or New York City police officers, not just on special holidays but on every Shabbos and yom tov of the year. These security personnel work in some instances with teams of shul members who are really the only ones who have the best sense of who belongs in the shul and who is a stranger that might not belong there.
Today, the overall state of affairs requires that, more than anything else, we come to grips with the reality of a situation that has drastically changed, not only over the last year, but over the last few months. Police in Nassau County and New York City are convinced that there is a greater chance of some kind of terror attack taking place at this point than at any other time since 9/11. Police intelligence sources tell us that at this time there are no credible threats of anything of this nature taking place. What they fear more is a “lone wolf” type of incident, committed by a person who is not necessarily affiliated with a known terror group but is just crazy enough to pull off one of these stunts on his own. It is precisely this type of situation that requires all citizens to be vigilant and on alert. Police emphasize that while it is human nature to think that what you see is not worth reporting to authorities, if you witness a suspicious matter or an individual who looks like he or she might not belong, do not hesitate to report it.
Rest assured that the police are out there even if you don’t see them. They are in unmarked cars and on the streets in plainclothes. They understand well, at every level, that the job at hand is to provide protection, and they are working diligently to make that a reality.
Here is to a good, sweet, and safe New Year for all. v
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By Larry Gordon