RELIGION

International summit addresses violence against people of faith

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

Five years ago, in search of a more quiet and peaceful life, Rabbi Francine Roston and her family moved from New Jersey to Whitefish, Montana. Weeks after Donald Trump won the electoral college vote, the Rostons and other Jews in town came under public harassment and a cyberterror attack by a Whitefish-led group that had rallied in Washington, D.C. that November.

“Richard Spencer ended his speech with cries of ‘Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!'” Roston said.

The trauma-inducing ordeal has led to a new reality.

“We now have armed security for our Jewish community events and we greatly expanded our home security system,” Roston said.

Roston shared the lessons learned at an international summit at Stockton University entitled “Building Resilience in the New Threat Paradigm: Targeted Violence Against People of Faith.” Among the lessons: don’t talk to the media.

“We cannot rely on local or federal government to protect us. I honor and value that protection, but faith communities cannot rely on it. We must do everything we can to secure our houses of worship, to train our congregations on security,” Roston said.

“I think that’s true. Government can do a lot and government is there, but if you look at the nature of events as they occur, even 9/11, the first responders are not the ‘first responders.’ First responders are the people who are there when it happens and those people need to be trained,” said former New Jersey Attorney General and Executive Director of Rutgers University Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience John Farmer.

Farmer says prevention is the ideal but preparing to mitigate does pay off, as well. Farmer says in 2015, a gunman killed the security guard outside a Copenhagen synagogue but the synagogue’s lockdown capability stopped his access to 200 people at a bar mitzvah.

“They were not able to prevent the attack, they were able to mitigate its effects,” he said.

Farmer, who helped organize the event, says he doubts four years ago that the summit would have attracted as many men and women as it has, especially those from overseas.

“When we started this work there was just a dawning recognition that there was a problem. And what we’ve seen, unfortunately, flourish in those four years is the spread of this hateful ideology of all different kinds of extremisms,” Farmer said.

Extremism aimed at mosques, churches, synagogues, museums and at people of faith. Farmer says for some, fear, intolerance and hate fill the vacuum that ignorance of history creates. At the summit, Jews and law enforcers from Sweden, Germany, and Belgium say they’re witnessing a huge rise in hate, and they’re also seeing a new type of supremacists winning elections.

“They are just absolutely well-dressed, well-shaved, Wall Street-looking kind of guys and they all have degrees,” said Saad Amrani, chief commissioner and policy adviser for the Belgian Federal Police.

One town in Belgium has partnered with the European Jewish Congress and the Security and Crisis Center to launch Care, community awareness and resilience education. They’ve produced a series of short videos, like one on what to do in the event of an active shooter.

“The consequence of the situation we are facing now is that our organizations have to divert a lot of their financial resources and invest it into security,” said Jonathan Biermann, deputy mayor of Uccle, Belgium.

One speaker said the U.S. Homeland Security Department has just created the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency, or CSISA, to offer houses of worship a security adviser.

Law enforcers encouraged those houses to practice vigilance.

“Putting an eye on the person, if you have what we refer to as an elder — or an usher — kind of see what’s going on, maybe even go talk to the person and welcome them in. And while you’re doing that, you’re doing an evaluation or a vetting system to see if there’s other issues you need to be aware of,” said Roger Parrino Sr., senior adviser for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

“Because of how religion is built, we are built to trust everyone. Well the times have changed, so we need to change with that,” said National Police Athletic League President Emeritus Chris Hill.

Faith and law enforcement leaders say finding common ground and staying in communication can result in life-changing trust and safety. For an example, Col. Patrick Callahan, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, echoed a Muslim New York Police Department captain on how much has changed since 9/11.

“It’s very different now. When State Police, when troopers show up at mosques, it’s very welcoming. And, again, that’s not just by getting on a phone call and checking a box,” said Callahan.

New Jersey’s Director of Homeland Security and Preparedness Jared Maples says grants are available to help houses of worship improve their security.

“There is no place for hate here in our communities, and I don’t care in which of the 21 counties, and I don’t care which of the faiths are impacted or affected, that message has to resonate and be clear,” Maples said.

The sponsors bused the attendees to a church for a closed-door training exercise as part of the two-day summit — a gathering aimed at helping a community that prays for the best but must prepare to prevent the worst.