Preparing for disaster


Jews make up less than 3 percent of the American population and yet two-thirds of reported hate crimes target the Jewish community, according to Elise Jarvis, associate director for law enforcement outreach and communal security with the Anti-Defamation League.

In recognition of that grim reality, local and state police, FBI agents, synagogue representatives and other Jewish communal leaders gathered at Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax on Aug. 14 for a security workshop for Jewish institutions.

Similar events were also scheduled for D.C. and Maryland institutions this month, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, the Anti-Defamation League and The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

The choice of Gesher was appropriate, said Mike McGarrity, an agent in the FBI’s Washington field office, given the school’s own tight security – better than the Navy Yard, he said.

The agent then went on to break down the main terrorist threat to Americans, posed by “lone offenders,” who tend to be shooters, not bomb throwers. These actors, once referred to as “lone wolves,” are unconnected to any organized extremist or terrorist cell.

“There are about 14 active shooters a year,” McGarrity said, listing the Navy Yard shooting and the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) as two recent examples. The school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and Virginia Tech are others.

Agents are seeing a spike in events like this, and they will “likely continue over the next few years.” They will affect Jewish communities more so than the general public, McGarrity said.

Cantor Mike Shochet, head of the Fairfax County Community Chaplain Corps, said that Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, where he works, has formed a preparedness task force to be ready for all disasters, whether natural or man-made, like a shooting.

Rodef Shalom, said Shochet, “has off-duty officers at all services, [at] Hebrew school for traffic control – they know our building.” He and other panelists stressed the importance of having local officers know the layout of the building. One way to do that is to invite officers to come and run drills on location. Gesher Jewish Day School had the SWAT team do a practice stimulation at their campus just a few weeks ago.

Shochet and the law enforcement officials said that having an armed or unarmed officer on the campus deters crime and decreases response time in emergencies. The most vulnerable times? When kids are at camp and during pick-up and drop-off times.

Officers should always be armed, Shochet said. “But in the end, our radio is often more important than our gun.” Communication for the police departments and being alert are key at all times, he said.

The panelists urged all the synagogue representatives to get their congregants to sign up for government alerts, such as the Fairfax Alerts, which provide the county with contact information concerning weather updates, traffic and other incidents. Other sources include Capitol Region Updates and the National Terrorism Advisory System.

Shochet said signing up people can give up to 10 means of contact, cellphone numbers, emails etc. to the alerts database.

Meanwhile, suspicious activity can be reported directly to the FBI’s Washington field office at 202-278-2000.

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