NYPD heightens security for Jewish holidays as leaders preach hope


Stephen Wise Free Synagogue

The Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah eve. Photo: Tal Trachtman Alroy.

The New York Police Department announced last week that it is heightening security during the Jewish High Holidays in light of potential terror threats posed by the Islamic State and a spike in anti-Semitic attacks in Manhattan since this summer’s Gaza war. But Jewish leaders in Midtown West don’t believe the political climate will lead to attacks at their synagogues and did not take extra precautions in advance of the holidays.

NYPD Commissioner William Bratton said at the annual Jewish High Holidays security briefing on September 17th that the Gaza war and the rise of the Islamic State have fueled an increase in hate crimes against both Jews and Muslims in New York City. At the briefing, attended by hundreds of Jewish community members and religious leaders, NYPD officials said New Yorkers would see more police presence in Times Square, the subways and elsewhere during the upcoming Jewish holidays. Security is always raised during the High Holidays, but this year, turmoil in the Middle East is the reason for tightened security measures.

Anti-Semitic attacks in New York City rose from 64 in January 2013 through late summer of that year, to 89 during the same period this year. The Associated Press reported that Michael Osgood, deputy chief of the NYPD, said that the increase in hate crimes began in early July, when news reports of the conflict between Israel and Hamas became front-page news in the United States.

But despite the analysis presented by NYPD officials last week, most rabbis in Midtown West don’t believe extra precautions are necessary.

“To overreact at this point would be irresponsible. One never truly knows, but that’s not reason enough to go to extremes,” said Rabbi Joshua Katzan of Congregation Habonim, a conservative temple of 340 families located at 66th street and Central Park West. He added in an email that he was “unwilling to destroy the organic sense of hope that is engendered in the holidays out of unrestricted and unfounded fear.”

Yitzhak Kleinman, the assistant rabbi at the Kollel Torah Center, an educational institute near Herald Square that is open to all adults regardless of affiliation, background or level of religious observance, also expressed a business-as-usual attitude. He said the Kollel Center was treating this year’s High Holidays as they always have and that he wasn’t aware of any changes.

Rabbi Jill Hausman, the leader of the Actor’s Temple, a progressive congregation near Times Square, acknowledged that her synagogue was located in a crowded and unpredictable area, but said that the NYPD’s increased security would not alter her plans. In a phone interview, she said that her congregation would not change its security measures and that she believed “it’s totally unnecessary, at my synagogue, which is too small and insignificant.”

Mendy Weisz, the office manager of the Chabad Lubavitch of Midtown Manhattan Center, an orthodox congregation, expressed confidence in the NYPD’s security and said of the center’s own efforts, “Everyone reads the news but nothing is new,” meaning that the synagogue wasn’t taking any unusual steps prior to the High Holidays. Asked whether the congregation noticed the NYPD’s intensified security, he said it didn’t seem higher in Midtown. “It’s pretty standard, and nothing more than in previous years,” he said. Weisz acknowledged growing anti-Semitism around the world but said the congregation wasn’t affected. “My family lives in Europe and London, and of course attacks around the world have grown higher but as of locally, we don’t feel it,” he said.

David Boehm, chief operating officer for Security USA, a private company that provides security for five Jewish institutions in Midtown West, believes increasing security is necessary. Boehm said his company was “acting at a higher alert, more than last year, because there is a lot of chatter coming in from the intelligence community and because of what we are seeing on published blogs.”

Boehm referred to a blog post associated with the Islamic State that called for an attack in Times Square, titled “To the Lone Wolves in America: How to Make a Bomb in Your Kitchen, to Create Scenes of Horror in Tourist Spots and Other Targets.” Boehm said that while a large-scale attack was always possible, his teams were more concerned with “a one man or woman team using small fire arms,” which he explained would be easy to coordinate and would accomplish the mission of instilling fear. Boehm didn’t provide details on security measures being taken.

Justin Blitzstein, the senior manager of security at the Center for Jewish History, also expressed differing views than those of religious leaders. He said that the center’s security team follows NYPD and Homeland Security guidelines to ensure security remains tight. “We do have some procedures that we do more frequently because of the High Holidays. There is a flux with the holidays,” he said, referencing enhanced scrutiny and screening of incoming visitors and packages.

Many synagogues in Midtown avoid addressing what happened in Gaza this summer, during the holiday. “I have been addressing the conflict along the way,” said Rabbi Katzan. “It’s totally inappropriate and some might argue counterproductive.” Instead, he plans to focus on the importance of Jewish identity and emphasize how it could contribute to daily life. Rabbi Hausman said she believed that people were already saturated with the conflict. “I can best serve the people who come to services by giving them a sense of hope for the future,” she said. “We don’t need the depression of the summer. I want people to leave uplifted.”

Only Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, the senior rabbi of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a reform congregation of over 800 families, said he would focus on what happened in Gaza over the summer and its ramifications for Jewish traditions and morals. He added that Israel’s actions are central to Jewish destiny and Jewish leaders should address these issues head on. He said his synagogue was taking security seriously and “spending a lot of money to address any potential incidents while working in close contact with the NYPD.” Hirsch declined to explain what these security measures entailed.