After a year of high-profile anti-Semitic incidents, including a rash of bomb threats, local officials are planning to beef up security this year for the High Holidays.
There are no specific threats ahead of Rosh Hashanah, which begins the evening of Sept. 20 and continues through Sept. 22, but both Baltimore City and County police are not taking any chances. The Baltimore Police Department plans to have increased patrols in Jewish neighborhoods and posted officers at places of worships and other institutions, police spokesman Det. Jeremy Silbert said.
Members of the Baltimore Police Department met with elected officials, synagogue representatives and community organizations on Sept. 6 to talk about security preparations. Silbert said the department’s deployment efforts will consist of citywide motorized and foot patrols and mobile command posts.
“All of this allows members of the community who do not use their telephones on the holidays to walk somewhere if they need a police officer,” said Silbert, who is Jewish.
Silbert, who plans to attend services at a synagogue in the city, stressed that individuals and families should also be vigilant and pay attention to their surroundings.
“If you see any suspicious activity, whether it’s a person, whether it’s a vehicle or whatever, if something doesn’t look right in your community, we want you to call us,” he said. “It’s a simple call to 911. You never have to leave your name — you can remain anonymous.”
In Baltimore County, there is no High Holiday-specific countywide plan or procedure system to coordinate a response in the event of an emergency. Each precinct will be responsible for assessing and strategizing how to use its resources to shut down any threats, police spokeswoman Jennifer Peach said.
“It is important that everyone is safe and all the necessary steps to make sure that any threat is taken seriously,” she said.
Jewish leaders feel increased safeguards are a necessity, especially for the religious holidays that draw the biggest crowds of the year.
In past years, City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (D-District 5) said he noticed an uptick of muggings, robberies and people being held up at gunpoint as they made their way to and from synagogue.
But with the implementation of the mobile command posts, which he helped initiate last year after discussions with Silbert and Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, Schleifer said those incidents have considerably declined.
“Anytime you have a growing community, you need adequate measures in place to protect people,” he said. “We’ve also heard from people that they have been satisfied with the coverage that is now in place.”
Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said security concerns intensified after the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC and Weinberg Park Heights JCC were the subject of five separate bomb threats earlier this year.
“Safety is a top concern every year, but this year, it’s maybe even more of a top concern, given what we have been seeing nationally and regionally,” he said. “We are grateful that our law enforcement partners are more than aware of the High Holidays and pay particular attention to ensuring everyone feels safe and protected.”
Betsy Gardner, neighborhood liaison for the 5th and 6th City Council districts and citywide Jewish community liaison for the City Council president’s office, understands the importance of making people feel comfortable. She said she has visited each of the eight synagogues, along with other Jewish institutions, located outside Northwest Baltimore to conduct security walkthroughs.
“We want to make sure we are using the best practices for everyone,” she said. “We are here to make sure everyone in the Jewish community is accounted for and that everyone from all walks of life can enjoy the High Holidays with no worries.”
Elsewhere in the Baltimore region, other institutions are incorporating their own measures to maintain their security.
At Harford Chabad in Bel Air, Rabbi Kushi Schusterman said he has had ongoing conversations with the Harford County Sheriff’s Office and that law enforcement is aware of the Chabad’s schedule of services.
Schusterman acknowledged he was put on alert after several anti-Semitic fliers were discovered in the Bel Air neighborhood of Fountain Glen in February with the swastika symbol and the URL of a known neo-Nazi website, the Daily Stormer.
A security team made up of people who look like ordinary congregants will be brought in to look for anything out of the ordinary and who may pose a potential risk, Schusterman said.
“They’re trained in assessing the risk to make sure nothing inappropriate happens,” he said. “I wish I could say more, but the realities are that part of security is that you share very little about your protocols.”
At Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Rabbi Craig Axler said changes were made to increase the temple’s private security team in the last year after consultation with the board and trustees and security subcommittee. Temple Isaiah will be ready for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown on Sept. 29 and continues through Sept. 30, Axler said.
For Temple Isaiah’s Rosh Hashanah in the Park service on Thursday at Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, the temple’s security team will receive assistance from the Howard County Police Department. Axler said it is important to balance being open and welcoming to congregants while making sure to protect them from any harm.
“From what I can tell, we have been doing very well in terms of making sure to find that right balance,” he said.