How serious is the terror threat to American Jewry?

By Andrew Silow-Carroll, May 28, 2009

After a sabbatical in Jerusalem in the mid ‘90s, we moved for a time to Riverdale, NY, in large part because it reminded us of… Jerusalem. Set on a hill above the rougher-edged Bronx, leafy Riverdale has low-slung apartment buildings and pricey single-family homes and good parks. Most importantly for us, it also has a burgeoning shomer Shabbat community, centered around two big modern Orthodox synagogues — the buttoned-down Riverdale Jewish Centre and the Hebrew Institute, home base for the political firebrand and Orthodox maverick Rabbi Avi Weiss. The prevailing Riverdale ethos is relatively liberal on the religious spectrum, conservative on the political scale, and passionate about all things Israel. Think French Hill, not Meah Shearim.

It is unclear what the four ex-convicts who were arrested last week in a plot to blow up the Jewish Centre and the Reform Riverdale Temple knew of the area’s Jewish reputation. Alleged ringleader James Cromitie had lived in the Bronx, and as a prison convert to Islam may have focused on the Jews on the hill as part of his convoluted scheme to punish America for the death of Muslims in Afghanistan.

Most American Jews probably don’t care whether the plotters sought a densely Jewish neighbourhood or merely went after synagogues qua synagogues. As in the aftermath of the deadly shooting at a Los Angeles Jewish Community Centre in 1999, or the arrest this month of man who allegedly murdered a Jewish student at Wesleyan and who dreamed of a “Jewish Columbine”, Jews simply want to know: are we and our institutions safe?

It is a question about resources and lifestyles. If the would-be Bronx bombers are seen to represent the tip of an antisemitic iceberg, the vanguard of a homegrown Islamist threat, Jews are going to have to accept the kind of security seen in many European synagogues and Jewish centres: armed guards, 24-hour surveillance, elaborate buzz-in systems, garrison architecture. The costs — literal and in a sense of lost well-being — will be enormous.

The Secure Community Network, a Jewish coalition that coordinates with law enforcement, assured the community that the Riverdale plotters “were not part of a broader network and were kept under close surveillance”. That’s cold comfort to observers like the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, who wrote this week that it’s “only a matter of time until an American synagogue is blown up”. Goldberg charges that the “American Jewish leadership knows this, and yet does virtually nothing to help prepare for the inevitable”.

That might sound slightly hysterical to Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, who lives in Riverdale. “Yes, there are real security challenges which we face both as Americans and as Jews, challenges which are bigger and more serious than they were some years back, and we must be vigilant about them,” he wrote on his blog. “But especially as Jews, we are a whole lot safer than we were a generation or two back, even here in America.”

In the wake of the foiled attack, Jewish leaders will be compelled to demonstrate what they are doing to keep Jews safe. As in the national homeland security debate, it will be nearly impossible to separate reason from emotion.

In that sense, even a failed plot can be said to have succeeded.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is the editor of the New Jersey Jewish News. He lives in Teaneck, NJ

Last updated: 9:55am, May 28 2009