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Community leaders gather to discuss security concerns, conduct business as usual

By Barbara Bayer


“We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to be back in our synagogues, we’re going to be back in our JCCs, our children are going to be attending the schools because if they don’t and if we aren’t, the act of one hater, one individual, has impacted this entire community and has won and that’s not what this is about.”

Those are the words of Paul Goldenberg, the national director of the Secure Community Network, who was here last week to help Jewish community leaders assess the security of the Jewish Community Campus, Village Shalom and local Jewish institutions following the deaths April 13 of two people outside of the Campus and one in the parking lot of Village Shalom.

“It’s really business as usual under unusual circumstances,” said Jacob Schreiber, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center, on Friday, April 18, one day after the interfaith Service of Unity and Hope, and less than one week after the shootings.

“Everyone is aware of what has happened here, but the overwhelming desire for people is to move ahead with their lives,” Schreiber said.

Todd Stettner, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City agreed with Schreiber that “we’re doing the best we can to be back in business as usual.”

The JCC is in the midst of celebrating its 100th anniversary and had asked people to send in their stories about what the JCC means to them. Until last week’s tragedy struck, the response had been underwhelming.

“Now, we probably have 500 stories of people here who are telling us what the Jewish Community Center has meant to them,” said Schreiber who came to the JCC in the summer of 2009. “I didn’t have any clue of what this meant to people as a community center. Everybody and their brother, their cousin, their friend has had somebody who has swum here, done fitness, did the singing competition, been in a play … I think this is why this has hit the community so much because after 100 years of being open to the entire community, everybody has a connection here. It’s unbelievable.”

Besides reopening its facility last week for its preschool, sports and fitness department and various programs, another way the JCC got back to business quickly is by rescheduling KC SuperStar auditions that were abruptly halted by the lockdown April 13. They were expected to take place yesterday (Wednesday, April 23). Only those who had registered originally were contacted about the rescheduled auditions.

From the first moments that Village Shalom became aware of the situation, and in the hours and days since, Village Shalom President and CEO Matt Lewis said “we have made every attempt to keep life as normal as possible for our residents.”

“Our residents have a wide spectrum of needs and care levels, and we are sensitive to that as we have apprised them of the circumstances. We thought it was extremely important to go ahead with the Passover Seder, as scheduled, on the first night of the holiday. In doing that, we were maintaining Jewish tradition, and it was an important step in beginning the healing process for our residents and their families. Above all, we have stayed focused on the well-being of our residents, families and staff,” Lewis continued. 

Lewis is proud of the way Village Shalom staff responded to the crisis and is continuing to respond to its residents.

“We are now directing our energies to the healing process — not only for the Village Shalom family that has suffered such a heart-rending loss, but for everyone among us who has been stricken by this heinous, incomprehensible act. Our focus has never wavered from the care of our residents, family members and staff. We have received a generous outpouring of contributions and condolences from our immediate community, and expressions of consolation and caring have literally come from around the world. We feel extremely blessed to be part of this amazingly supportive community,” Lewis said.

Police presence will continue

Over the years the Overland Park Police Department has worked very closely with the Jewish community and frequently patrols Jewish institutions. On the day of the shootings, police presence at all Jewish institutions in the area, as well as at other faith-based institutions, was stepped up immediately.

Officer Gary Mason, assistant to the chief of police and public information officer, has told The Chronicle that the Jewish community will continue to see police presence in those areas for a while.

That police presence was evident at events last week including the Thursday interfaith Service of Unity and Hope and the service, vigil and walk that took place Friday night. Mason said this presence is “certainly going to be the case for a while, especially with the various religious services that are taking place at this time of year.”

Schreiber said he can’t compliment the OPPD enough.

“I can’t state how much the Overland Park Police Department is amazing. I’ve never seen a more passionate, community friendly department that is really dedicated to their mission,” Schreiber said.

Overland Park has not yet selected a new police chief following the retirement last week of Chief John Douglass. Stettner said Jewish executives have already met with both of the department’s lieutenant colonels and “they both assured us, as did Chief Douglass, that even though he is no longer there that will not impede the relationship with the Jewish community and the OPPD. They will continue to work closely with us.”

Stettner noted that not every single Federation-affiliated agency is located in Overland Park, referring to KU Hillel’s presence in Lawrence, Kan., and Jewish Vocational Services main office in Kansas City, Mo. Jewish Family Service also has an office on the Missouri side of the state line. A few congregations are located in other cities as well.

“KCMO has also been very good with us, but since most of our agencies aren’t there we don’t have the same relationship with them as we do Overland Park. But (JCRB|AJC Executive Director) Marvin Szneler has an excellent relationship with their intelligence department,” Stettner said.

“We have talked with those not located in Overland Park to make sure they know what to do with their local police,” he continued. “We want to make sure they get what they need in terms of security.”

No guns allowed at Campus

All of the agencies affected by the tragedies quickly began reassessing their security measures. Lewis said Village Shalom has heightened security throughout the campus, “with armed, uniformed police officers and two patrol cars on duty 24/7 for as long as we think it is necessary. This is in addition to our regular security measures and staffing that have always been in place.”

The Jewish Community Campus is a guns free zone and signs announcing the policy are posted at all the entrances. Goldenberg of SCN, the national homeland security initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations, said he will not specifically comment on whether or not armed security guards are a good idea here because he has not evaluated the security company used by the Campus. However he did speak about guns and security in general terms.

“Unfortunately security forces that work within Jewish communities across the country need to be re-evaluated. Many of these security forces are not trained to work with faith-based and/or religious institutions that are vulnerable,” Goldenberg said.

He explained that security guards in some states have very little training.

“My concern is that many of these security companies are just ill equipped and ill trained to be working within our institutions,” he said.

For communities who do explore armed security, Goldenberg highly recommends armed, off-duty police officers.

“Many of the police departments out there will provide off-duty security. These are uniformed police officers that are provided at a cost to the communities,” he said.

The preliminary assessment

Goldenberg, who spent two days here last week following the shooting, was pleased with his preliminary assessment of security at the Campus.

“The good news is your community has received some training, you do have emergency management policies in place and people did respond accordingly. Is there room for improvement? Of course. And that’s why Todd Stettner and Jacob Schreiber called upon me to spend a couple of days out there so we can talk about not what didn’t work but what more can the community do to become a provider of additional security and safety enhancements,” Goldenberg said.

“We feel safe here. The Jewish Community Center is safe, the police chief has said it’s safe, but it’s important to make others feel safe too,” said the JCC’s Schreiber.

“So that’s why we’re going to be taking some visible measures and some measures that are very effective but not as visible. All of our partners here are going to be looking at a holistic approach. I do believe that we will be able to say within a very short period of time that this is one of the very safest places to be,” Schreiber continued.

Stettner said SCN is highly respected and communal leaders sought its advice immediately. He explained that whenever there is any type of threat or incident Jewish communities need to know about, SCN gets the word out to not only Federations but building managers such as Dan Cullinan at the Jewish Community Campus, community relations directors such as Marvin Szneler, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau|American Jewish Committee, and synagogues.

“They try to stay on top of these things. So Paul (Goldenberg) called me within an hour of the shooting, as did Jerry Silverman, head of JFNA,” Stettner said.

Stettner said Goldenberg discussed ways the community could improve its security and suggested some immediate changes.

“In terms of the Campus, things weren’t necessarily bad before. We have a crisis management manual. We’ve done table top exercise. People locked down, they did what they needed to do. But whoever thought somebody would be out in the parking lot doing this?” Stettner said.

What’s next? How do we improve? 

Stettner prefers not to go into detail as to what changes are ahead.

“There were some ideas for both short term and long term that we discussed. There were some things discussed that could be done with no money, such as better training and SCN has the available resources.”

He pointed out that a lot of SCN’s training is available online.

“These are videos that were designed with material from the department of Homeland Security. Goldenberg was very high on their training materials and their ability to do audits of facilities and to assess vulnerabilities. We had the head of Homeland Security for Kansas here (April 16). We had one of his Protective Service Agents here and the PSA who was here with us will be in continual touch with us and hopefully he will come back and help us with some of the assessments and some of the security things,” Stettner reported.

“We will be doing things immediately that will be evident and then there will be other things that will be behind the scenes, but will involve both equipment and personnel,” he said.

Some funding sources are available, according to Stettner, to defray the costs of some new security measures.

“I think that’s a very positive thing,” Stettner said.

“We’re also talking about creating a communitywide security committee which will meet periodically to update and assess what needs to be assessed. That’s another factor that will be something that’s no cost that we can do fairly easily.”

Stettner said because this tragedy happened on a Sunday, some key personnel were not on the site. Therefore the Campus’ security plan didn’t go exactly as practiced. 

“I think another take away in terms of the training is besides Plan A, we need to have Plan B and Plan C.”

“One of the things SCN suggested is that every new employee that comes into the agency should go through the training video. And in our case, go through our  manual  immediately. We should  certainly have a campus wide table-top exercises at least once a year,” Stettner said.

Goldenberg said Stettner and Schreiber have been working tirelessly on this issue.

“Jacob Schreiber and Todd Stettner were very aggressive in ensuring that they put certain things in place. They are two of the most extraordinary leaders that I’ve had the opportunity to work with and I’ve been in and out of communities during crises and these two are just ‘we’re getting it done.’ They are exceptional.”

Community Alert Network

One of the very first things Stettner said will be implemented, with SCN’s assistance, is a Community Alert Network.

It’s similar to what’s been installed on college campuses across the country that alerts students and staff of emergency situations.

“Through text messaging and emails we could get something out to all of the institutions and all of the key players immediately,” Stettner said. 

“It can say suspicious characters casing (XYZ) Synagogue, please be on the alert. Or a shooting has taken place at the Campus, everyone needs to go in lockdown mode immediately — those kinds of things.”

Stettner said this system can be used in other emergency situations, such as to take cover during severe weather warnings.

“It’s a way to quickly get out information to a wide group of people. That was a vital missing link in this whole scenario that we can change for the next time,” Stettner said.

Such an alert system is already in place at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy. Students and staff at the Jewish day school have been on Passover vacation and will resume classes today (Thursday, April 24). Head of School Howard Haas said the school communicates with staff and parents by text and also runs a variety of safety drills throughout the year. 

“I met with Homeland Security (April 17) and we are assessing our building,” commented Haas via email. “We implemented tighter security systems a few years back and have updated them again recently.”

“Here at HBHA we feel secure but are constantly vigilant because of the treasures we are responsible for,” he added.

‘See Something, Say Something’

Goldenberg explained community members, not security guards or police officers, are actually first responders when it comes to the community’s security. He cites the “If You See Something, Say Something”™ public awareness campaign as the perfect example. This is a simple and effective program to raise public awareness of indicators of terrorism and terrorism-related crime, and to emphasize the importance of reporting suspicious activity to the proper local law enforcement authorities. The campaign was originally used by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

“It is not just about posters. It’s really about developing a culture where people see something that is not right, they pick up that phone, they call 911 and candidly say they saw something that isn’t right,” Goldenberg said.

The national security expert pointed out that police say the shootings in Overland were carried out by a lone wolf.

“Lone wolves fly under the radar screen so no matter how good of a job Homeland Security, the FBI or the Overland Park Police do — which by the way they are extraordinary — lone wolves will respond and react without any warning. The only way to confront the lone wolf or to stop the lone wolf or to ensure that he or she is not successful is to have people that are trained inside our institutions that can identify if there is a surveillance going on. The majority of these lone wolves will surveil their institutions. I am not imminently involved in the investigation out there but unfortunately this individual knew that there were multiple Jewish institutions within the community,” Goldenberg said.

He said that’s why it’s important to train people within our institutions to watch for the unusual.

“I’m talking about the grounds keepers, the receptionists, our teachers, our administrators, the people who do yoga instruction. This is an hour to two hours of training to just make people aware, to make them cognizant of their surroundings and make them vigilant,” he explained.

Once trained he said people will start to recognize such things like a person asking prodding questions.

“Someone called us on the phone yesterday and asked us about our security department. These are called prodding questions. They are questions where people are looking for information so they can set a plan in place and execute that plan that could unfortunately lead to the death of members of our community,” Goldenberg said.

“So as well as these bad people plan, our community needs to plan and we need to train,” he continued.

Goldenberg said that what happened here can and does happen anywhere.

“It happens unfortunately in movie theaters, 11 year olds with shotguns enter schools. That is why the only recourse we have is to train and we need to train our people on how to respond, how to stay alive and how to be vigilant and how to identify something that needs to be reported. That’s why we need to say something if we see something.”

Security at Village Shalom

Goldenberg also spent time at Village Shalom while he was in the area.

“The senior manager (Matt Lewis) at the Village is exceptional. He has security there, he has cameras in place, and he is absolutely hoping to do everything he can do for his constituents,” Goldenberg said.

Lewis said his security staff is very vigilant and he was happy to welcome Goldenberg to the retirement community.

“They came for an initial visit on April 17, and they were very impressed with our current security measures and the extensive and varied employee training that we have in place. We look forward to learning much through this initiative, and we are committed to enhancing our staff emergency training in the future.”

Goldenberg doesn’t believe this is the last time he will be called to a Jewish community to handle a crisis situation such as this.

“This is not the first time and unfortunately it’s not going to be the last time. We may see other events of this nature in other parts of the country,” he said. “I want to be clear I’m not talking about Kansas. Other parts of North America are seeing a rise in these types of events. We clearly do not have any indication it will happen in Overland Park again.”