FBI alerts local, U.S. Jewish groups to potential terror

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council was one of several area Jewish organizations that heard from the FBI this week.

Newsweek reported that, in light of the increased state of alert, FBI officials began contacting Jewish leaders last Friday, warning them to be especially vigilant and to enhance security at Sabbath services and weekend events.

Indeed, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the organization "received calls and visits around the country by law enforcement bureau staff."

And Rabbi Doug Kahn, the JCRC executive director, confirmed that was the case locally, as he got a visit from an FBI agent.

While that agent said there had been some indication of increased threats against Jewish institutions, there were no specifics, according to Kahn. "There was nothing to directly focus on, but rather continued vigilance was important," he said. "People should go about their business and be vigilant as they know the Jewish community obviously is."

Foxman said it is the third time the FBI has warned of a threat against Jewish groups. Last April, he said, after a Tunisian synagogue was hit by a terror attack, Jewish groups were put on alert.

While there are no specific threats, Foxman said, "The fact that they reached out to us means that somewhere, someone felt that there was a specific need to reach out to the Jewish community."

Said Kahn: "Even in advance of this new alert, Allan Levigne has been working to ensure that the emergency plans of synagogues and agencies are fully up to date."

Levigne is a security consultant, hired six months ago with a grant from the Jewish Community Endowment Fund to enhance security for the area's Jewish institutions.

Also on the local front, the ADL sent letters to several hundred Jewish organizations, warning them to be more vigilant.

"The raising of the threat level affects police and government agencies much more than it does the average citizen," wrote Jonathan Bernstein, ADL's director of the Central Pacific region. "But as we know, the overall threat to our institutions and to Jews in general is real and ongoing."

A national FBI spokesman said he couldn't discuss which organizations were contacted, or what reports the bureau had received. "When we receive this information and it targets a specific group, we try to make an assessment, and as of now it has not been corroborated," Paul Bresson said. "But nonetheless, we feel the need to just put the community on alert."

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, downplayed the concern, saying the group's conversations with security officials indicate no evidence of increased risk.

But Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said it is better to err on the side of safety by warning the Jewish community.

Newsweek reported that new information warned about the possibility of al-Qaida attacks on synagogues, Jewish community centers, Jewish or Jewish-owned hospitals, youth groups, hotels and resorts. Officials said they are unusually worried both because of recent electronic intercepts that suggest an imminent attack, as well as the sheer volume of reports that have been mentioning Jewish targets, the magazine reported.

"This is a full-court press," one FBI official told Newsweek about the bureau's sudden outreach to Jewish groups. "There's real anxiety about this."

Around the country, officials alerted Jewish organizations, which, in turn, took steps to alert their members and beef up security.

New York's JCRC, which received those warnings and alerted area agencies, is also taking long-term steps. It is working with the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of North American Jewish federations, and professors at John Jay College of Criminal Justice to produce an emergency planning manual for Jewish groups. The guide is expected to be distributed in CD format to all North American federations, synagogues and Jewish schools next month.

In a statement supported by other elected officials at the JCRC of New York's annual congressional breakfast Sunday, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) said, "I think we have to be alert but not alarmed, and I think we have to learn from our friends in Israel how to go on with our lives."