Security a focus following thwarted synagogue attack
By Sergio Carmona
The recent incident at Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center where the FBI thwarted a plot to detonate an explosive device during Passover and arrested the man behind this foiled planned attack has caught the attention of the concerned local Jewish community.
James Gonzalo Medina, 40, of Hollywood was arrested by federal agents on a charge of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against the synagogue during services at ATJC on Friday, April 29. Authorities say that the actual bomb — sold to him in Hallandale Beach by an FBI undercover operative just before the planned terror attack — was a dummy. Agents said they secretly recorded him plotting the attack for weeks and that the cooperating witness gave him several opportunities to back down or opt out. If convicted, Medina, who is being held at the Federal Detention Center, faces up to life in prison. A hearing to decide if he could be safely released on bond is scheduled to be held, at Jewish Journal press time, on May 10.
Rabbi Jonathan Berkun, the synagogue's spiritual leader, and Elliot B. Karp, its executive director, posted a joint Facebook statement on May 1 informing the community that the congregation was contacted by law enforcement and Jewish community security officials who assured them that the synagogue and school located on campus, Tauber Academy, were never at risk during the investigation and arrest.
"Please be assured that our security protocols are well in place, which includes close coordination with local law enforcement agencies to insure the security of our facility and the safety of our members, children, staff and visitors," Berkun and Karp noted in the statement. "We will continue to review our procedures in consultation with our security consultant and law enforcement officials to take whatever measures are necessary to insure the safety and security of our synagogue and members."
Berkun and Karp posted another Facebook statement on May 3, this time joined by the synagogue's president Allan Feingold, its president elect Neil Bernstein and Joanna Askenazi, director of Tauber Academy, updating the community on its security.
"Regarding security, for the past two days, an officer from the Aventura Police Department has been posted on our campus during school hours," the statement read. "Based on the recommendation of our security consultant, and in collaboration with the Aventura Police Department, we will be continuing to have the presence of an officer during regular school hours. This decision was made in order to support our existing robust security program, and is not in response to any increased risk to our synagogue or school."
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, issued a statement followed the arrest of Medina.
"As the month of May begins and we recognize Jewish American Heritage Month, this attempted attack is a harsh reminder that there are many in our community who are motivated by bigotry and violence," Wasserman Schultz noted in the statement. "As a community and a nation we must work together to confront this kind of hatred."
Local institutions planning community events this month were contacted by the Jewish Journal and asked if they plan to beef up security and be more vigilant in light of this recent incident.
Joel Berger, executive director for Temple Israel of Greater Miami, said although the congregation already has police presence on regular Friday night services, the congregation planned to, at press time, beef up security for a concert honoring its music director scheduled on May 7.
"The synagogue is definitely beefing up security and adding additional police presence for Saturday night and we're just going to be very cognizant of who approaches the building as we're definitely concerned," Berger said.
Berger's first reaction when he heard about the incident was to notify law enforcement, which he did and was able to touch base.
A lot of times there's copycat people out there and when they see these things, they go 'oh I can do the same thing,'" Berger said. "Although we have a security task force and we talked about it mostly by email communication, we're trying to be aware of our surroundings because of the copycats."
Rabbi Zvi Kahn, head of school for the Rabbi Alexander S. Gross Hebrew Academy in Miami Beach that's planning its annual CommUnity event on May 11 commemorating both Yom Hazikaron (Israel Memorial Day) and celebrating Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israel Independence Day), noted in an email: "The safety of our students is our number one priority and we evaluate and review our security procedures throughout the year."
"About two months ago we performed an internal review and decided to upgrade certain aspects of our security measures," Kahn continued. "Although we maintain confidentiality regarding all of our security measures, I can say that part of the upgrade has already taken place and the remaining components will be completed shortly."
Nancy Stearn, public relations director and media spokesperson for the David Posnack Jewish Community Center in Davie, noted in an email: "We already have security onsite throughout our campus in addition to 24-hour surveillance. The JCC leadership meets regularly with the leadership from other agencies housed on the campus, and we have a comprehensive security plan in place about which I am not at liberty to discuss. We communicate regularly with the Town of Davie Police Department and implement their recommendations to the best of our ability. Our JCC staff receives training on a regular basis with security professionals and adheres strictly to a 'See Something, Say Something' policy."
The Anti-Defamation League [ADL] sent out an email statement deploring this threat to ATJC and commending the FBI for diligent investigation.
ADL Florida Regional Director Hava L. Holzhauer noted in the statement: "This apprehension is of particular importance to the Jewish community, coming shortly after Passover, and in advance of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day). According to news reports, Mr. Medina had converted to Islam. Whether or not this proves true, the Jewish community, joined by Muslim community leaders from COSMOS, strongly condemn this evil plot and will not allow hate to shape the observance of our faiths."
COSMOS (the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations) issued this statement: "COSMOS unconditionally condemns any violence against innocent people or their property; it also categorically rejects the use of Islamic faith to advance any sinister action against any other faith or its followers. Islam as a faith has a high regard for the sanctity of life and opposes harm to innocent people in the strongest term."
"COSMOS appreciates the law enforcement efforts for their timely actions to keep the community safe; we also extend our goodwill and prayers to the fellow community members of Jewish faith for their safety," the COSMOS statement concluded.
The ADL's email statement also provided security resources for religious institutions, including those found on http://www.adl.org/assets/pdf/combating-hate/protecting-your-jewish-institution-final.pdf.
Rabbi Martin Applebaum – part of the management team of Uniform Security Agency, a security company based in said his organization specializes in security for synagogues and/or all Jewish organizations and schools in confronting the type of situation that occurred in ATJC. Applebaum mentioned the people the company sends to these facilities are well-trained and well-equipped.
According to Applebaum, the organization has catered close to 30 Jewish intuitions, whose names could not be published due to security reasons, and that since the incident, he's gotten six or seven new calls from institutions that he will be meeting with over the next few weeks. He mentioned that the organization's mission is extremely important, especially following this recent incident.
"We immediately sent out an alert to every single person that is responsible for the sensitive sites, be it a synagogue or a school, and to put them on alert for at least 30 days and that means to be doubly vigilant and trust no one unless they're one hundred percent sure that this person belongs," Applebaum said.
Applebaum can be contacted at 561-945-4473 for more information.