Tuesday, February 25, 2020

In the aftermath of the horrific attack in Pittsburgh on October 27, a sense of fear and vulnerability reverberated across Jewish communities in this region. It wasn’t just Jews who were deeply shaken by the tragedy, as people of different faiths expressed their shock and distress as well.

In Highland Park the mayor and council members, along with the police chief, took quick action. In the days after the attack, Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler, Councilwoman Elsie Foster Dublin (who oversees public safety) and Police Chief Stephen Rizco met and immediately increased patrols by houses of worship in the borough and reached out to leaders of faith based communities.

The mayor and police chief also organized an informational session on building security for religious and lay leaders of houses of worship in the Highland Park area.

The session was quite well attended, with representatives present from Agudath Israel, Congregation Ahavas Achim, Congregation Ahavas Yisrael, Congregation Ateres Shlomo, Congregation Etz Ahaim, Congregation Ohav Emeth, the Highland Park Conservative Temple and Center, the Highland Park Police Department, Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva, the Reformed Church of Highland Park and Yeshiva Shaarei Tzion.

Presenters at the briefing held on Tuesday, October 30, were: Ehtasham (Izzy) Z. Chaudhry, detective -New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness; John J. Paige, lieutenant—New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness; Gerard P. McAleer, chief of county detectives—Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office; Reginald Johnson, agent—Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office; and Stephen Rizco, chief of police—Highland Park Police Department.

The presenters outlined the services offered by the Office of Homeland Security, such as grant programs, the NJ SARS incident reporting system, and an Interfaith Advisory Council, and shared the office’s view on recent attacks on houses of worship.

The speakers also shared their view of best practices that houses of worship can use to deter attacks, including volunteer ushers (as ‘eyes and ears,’ regularly monitoring the premises), closing and locking all doors, and creating one point of entry that can be staffed or monitored, cutting back shrubs so they cannot be used as hiding places, making sure the building has strong and thorough exterior lighting and inviting all officers of the local police department to take tours of the building so they can become familiar with the layout of the facility.

The speakers discussed the value of hiring armed guards, noting that while doing so increases a perception of safety, taking this approach is expensive and incurs new risks and is not an ironclad way of preventing a tragedy.

The speakers also repeatedly discouraged the idea of arming congregants, pointing out that civilians do not generally get the level of training and field experience that law enforcement officials and skilled security guards can offer—making the dangers and liabilities of armed congregants much greater.

Attendees at the briefing praised the gathering afterwards. “The safety and security of our community is a matter of paramount importance,” said Yosef Golubchik, a lay leader in Congregation Ateres Shlomo. “It was abundantly clear that our borough government officials, local and statewide law enforcement, and community leaders are all taking this very seriously and are working hard to ensure the welfare of the community.”

By Harry Glazer