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Monday, March 30, 2020

Around 400 people packed RAIN on Water in Teaneck last Thursday night until it was standing-room-only, to hear from a panel of law enforcement, legislative and state officials on the recent rise in bias incidents and bias crimes against Jews and other members of faith communities. The proprietor of RAIN, Steven Kops of West Orange, told The Jewish Link he was happy to provide his venue free of charge for the benefit of the community.

The gathering was spearheaded and coordinated by Elie Katz and Mark (Mendy) Schwartz (JLNJ’s co-publisher), both deputy mayors of Teaneck, Keith Kaplan, a Teaneck council member, and Ora Kornbuth, a Bergenfield council member. While none of the council members served on the panel, Katz emceed and Schwartz led the Q&A. There were so many officials present on the panel that they sat at a table with a second row of panelists behind the front row. It took close to an hour just to introduce each one so they could clarify their respective roles in community safety planning and response.

The panelists described the policies and plans in their domains to preempt, protect and prosecute domestic (or any) incidents of terrorism, hate and bias crimes. Jason Shames, chief executive officer and executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, was quick to thank law enforcement and government affiliates for their action, support and solidarity during the recent string of anti-Semitic and other bias crimes.

The panelists explained their cooperative relationships with local public safety officials. Jerry Feigenbaum, special council to the attorney general, briefly addressed gun violence and Second Amendment rights, as multiple community members asked via note about how to apply for a concealed carry permit. Teaneck Police Chief Glenn O’Reilly explained that the procedure begins with the Teaneck or local township police and requires the approval of a superior court judge. Audience members questioned whether mace, pepper spray or other instruments used in self-defense would be prosecutable. Bergen County Prosecutor Mark Musella said that people have a right to defend themselves, and such incidents would be handled on a case by case basis. He clearly stated that people can certainly carry and use pepper spray to defend themselves.

Rabbi Joel Friedman, chief chaplain of the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, told the community that his role assisting law enforcement partners during the attacks in Jersey City and in other communities, was to help them understand the sensitivities, fears and concerns that the Jewish community was having as they went about their everyday lives.

“We are very fortunate to have, as our Attorney General, my former boss in the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, Gurbir Grewal. As a Bergen County resident and the first Sikh to ever hold this position, he is very sensitive to the needs of minorities and has been very good and helpful to the Jewish community.”

Bergenfield Chief of Police Mustafa Rabboh was present and affirmed that bias and hate will not be tolerated in his community, noting that he works aggressively to prevent it. Teaneck Township Manager Dean Kazinci and Teaneck’s Chief O’Reilly also shared the sentiment and indicated their support for those impacted by the recent attacks.

Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle reminded the group that Governor Phil Murphy last year signed into law the highest-ever dollar amount toward security grants to protect non-public schools. She also said that legislation will be proposed in March to edit the state definition to include “committing or the attempt to commit, conspire, influence or incite terrorism.”

Musella emphasized that his office employs “robust counter intelligence, including the careful monitoring of social media and the internet, and shared information between local, state and federal authorities, but we need everyone’s eyes and ears, to report incidents as they happen,” he said.

Joseph Kaplan, a litigation attorney of 45 years, asked Musella why the Sammy’s Bagels offender was not prosecuted as a bias criminal. Musella defended the decision based on the current legal difference between a bias incident and a bias crime. The audience was not satisfied with the definitions, and Katz even stated that he thought that acts of violence that occur in a house of worship or store associated with any kind of religious practice should be defined as bias crimes. The Sammy’s Bagels incident also recalled the watergun shooting incident of this past summer in Teaneck, where people targeted men clearly walking home from synagogue and shot at them with liquid, shouting anti-Semitic epiteths. Musella briefly lost control of the audience at this point, due to people shouting out their concern over these incidents not being characterized as bias crimes.

The panelists also were asked what it means when an offender is taken to a hospital for a mental health evaluation, and how that changes the nature of whether their incident is characterized as a bias incident or crime. According to Musella, “A mental health determination does not mean that prosecution ends. It also determines whether the person knew what they were doing.”

Patrick Rigby, chief of staff for state homeland security repeated earlier messages to community leaders to continue to take advantage of federal grant money and active shooter training as well as security evaluations, and noted it was his department that helped fund increased security at various facilities including houses of worship and private schools. Supporting this notion was Congressman Josh Gottheimer.

Rod Conrad, from the FBI counterterrorism office, specified terrorism as a violation of constitutional rights and assured that the FBI investigates every lead and will “turn over every rock” as part of its efforts to mitigate any terroristic threat.

By Ellie Wolf