By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

In 2019, two gunmen opened fire in a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, killing three people and injuring another. The FBI is continuing to investigate an attack on a Fort Worth, Texas, synagogue last month as an act of terror targeting the Jewish community there.

Not all high-profile incidents targeting Jews are as violent, but they remain a pressing concern for law enforcement and communities alike. Just in recent weeks, Lakewood police opened a hate crime investigation into a Jan. 29 incident, when a snowplow driver posted a video to Facebook, showing him dumping snow on two Orthodox Jewish men as they walked to a religious service. The driver and a friend can be heard laughing on the video.

And in Montclair, in March of 2020, a teacher at Montclair High School discovered two swastikas and an antisemitic phrase etched into a plastic seat at the school. It was the third such incident the school had seen that school year.

According to preliminary Uniform Crime Report data based on information from local police agencies, of 18 recorded bias incidents in Montclair in 2021 through September of that year, seven were antisemitic. The year before, there were 11 local antisemitic incidents recorded – more than against any other group in Montclair that year. Both years marked a noted increase in bias incidents overall from recent history — for several years prior, Montclair logged fewer than 10 bias incidents per year against all groups combined.

The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office hosted a town hall meeting Jan. 9, providing resources synagogues and other places of worship can apply to help their communities guard against the threat of violence.

“We think it is very important and critical that our state and local officials are concerned and taking steps to protect the Jewish community, our synagogues and our neighbors,” Ehud Klinger, operations director of Congregation Shomrei Emunah, located at 67 Park St., said. “We are in constant contact and cooperate fully with local, state and federal authorities regarding security.” 

Agent Antonio Gonzalez, Homeland Security coordinator and risk mitigation planner at the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, said at the meeting that one of the best ways to protect places of worship is to be prepared. 

Gonzalez said each house of worship should, at least once every three years, do a walk around the facility, inside and outside, to see if the building has any broken windows or graffiti, and to see if anything looks out of place.

“Do you have written emergency plans for fire or bomb threats? For an active shooter? Or a lockdown shelter in place? Evacuation or medical emergencies? Do you train or drill these plans?” Gonzalez said. “It’s great to have plans, but then we put them on the bookshelf and we never look at them again. We never revisit them, or we never rewrite them.” 

The New Jersey Nonprofit Security Grant Program provides funding for eligible nonprofit organizations that are at risk of terrorist attacks, officials at the town hall noted.

Daniel Morocco, officer at the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, said there are two state grants available at the moment, both with details available at njhomelandsecurity.gov under the “resources” menu, then the “grants” heading.

The Security Personnel grant awards an applicant up to $10,000 to hire federal, state, county or municipal law enforcement officers to provide extra security for a place of worship, based on identified risks. The extra security personnel can be used for off-site events within New Jersey under special conditions. 

The Target Hardening Equipment grant awards an applicant up to $50,000 to purchase and install security equipment. The equipment is limited to select items contained within categories 14 and 15 on the Federal Management Agency’s Authorized Equipment List, which includes CCTV systems, card access readers, blast mitigation film (which can be applied to windows to reduce the threat of flying glass after an explosion), lighting, fencing and bollards. The grant doesn’t cover alert or PA systems for emergency broadcasting.

“They are competitive, and they’re really based on risk. And the elements of risk of course include threat vulnerability,” Morocco said. 

He said a vulnerability risk assessment is required for the application. He said the assessment must be done before an incident. 

Klinger said Shomrei Emunah was aware of the grants but he said he cannot comment on whether the congregation has applied, or will apply, for these grants. Montclair Local has additionally reached out to Chabad of Montclair and Bnai Keshet by email for comment on the session, but hadn’t heard back by press time.

New Jersey-based Jewish Federation groups  hosted an active shooter threat training on Tuesday, Feb. 15.  

FBI special agent Gregory W. Ehrie said the tools provided in the town hall can help congregations know what their threat levels are, and connect them with law enforcement personnel to provide the best practices to make places of worship safer. 

“I wish we lived in a world where houses of worship or schools did not have to look like this, but we don't right now,” Ehrie said. “Preparation and training are what makes you prepared and safe.”