In balancing fear and reason, Jewish community must remain alert to terrorism

In balancing fear and reason, Jewish community must remain alert to terrorism

Josh Sayles. File photo
Josh Sayles. File photo

Paris. San Bernardino. Harrisburg.

That the threat of terrorism continues to spread, and that no community is necessarily immune, bears out in the headlines on an almost daily basis.

Ordinary people all over America are feeling the impact of apparently random murderous attacks perpetrated by those with radical Islamic agendas. And Jewish Pittsburgh is no different.

“I wouldn’t say people are freaking out,” said Josh Sayles, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “But is there a heightened sense of urgency? Absolutely.”

The topic of security in the wake of recent attacks by ISIS affiliates in Paris and California and last week’s arrest in Harrisburg of Jalil Ibn Ameer Aziz — charged with attempting to provide material to support the terrorist group — comes up frequently in conversations that Sayles has with community members, he said.

“People are obviously affected,” he said. “The key is to balance fear with reason. And that’s a difficult task.”

National security and terrorism are now the key issues of public concern, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, topping jobs and economic growth by a wide margin, 40 percent compared to 23 percent. And the polls show that fear of terrorism is increasing. Just last April, national security was the top priority for only 21 percent of Americans.

“We must have some fear or we wouldn’t be coming to synagogue every morning to pray,” noted Milt Eisner, a regular attendee of morning minyan at Congregation Beth Shalom. “There’s definitely some fear.”

That anxiety, though, does not seem to be crippling, and for the most part, community members are not significantly altering their daily routines.

“What would be the point?” said Cindy Harris. “There is nothing that we as individuals can do about it.”

Still, Harris thinks Americans could take a cue from Israelis in terms of caution.

“Israel is a different kind of place,” she said. “There is a certain watchfulness in Israel. Everybody there is watching. Here, if you see a bag sitting on the street, you walk by it. But in Israel, there is a protocol. They call 911. They call the police. Here, we don’t do that.”

For Marty Kline, precaution is paramount, and Jewish Americans should be more proactive in terms of protecting themselves, he said.

“There have always been terrorist attacks,” said Kline. “But I think more people should be armed and carry a gun. Look, the terrorists are not going to an NRA [National Rifle Association] convention to attack. They are going to schools and to community centers where no one is armed.”

While there have been no local attacks in this most recent spate of radical Islamic violence, the terrorists nonetheless have succeeded in altering our society, said Moshe Baran, a Holocaust survivor who says it is his life’s mission to fight hatred.

“The terrorists have won the first battle,” Baran said. “We don’t feel secure anymore, and the money we spend on security we could be spending on more useful things. And we don’t know where they are. They keep us guessing.”

There is a wide range of opinions in the Jewish community when it comes to security and terrorism prevention, according to Sayles.

“The question is, ‘How do you take a step back and balance a need for increased security in these difficult times and still remain open to doing the right thing in terms of maintaining our Jewish values?’”

Those values remain paramount to Harris, who is concerned that fear of terrorism could lead to a backlash against the innocent.

“Who would I be afraid of?” she said. “The Syrian refugees?”

Sayles keeps abreast of threats to the Jewish community through continual email updates from a nonprofit organization called the Secure Community Network, which was founded in 2004 to serve the American Jewish community concerning matters of communal safety, security and all-hazards preparedness and response. SCN operates a full-time threat and information-sharing center to monitor and report on threats and security events impacting the American Jewish community.

“They’re monitoring things,” Sayles said. “The ADL [Anti-Defamation League] is doing the same.”

So far, he said, there are no known imminent threats aimed at the Pittsburgh Jewish community, but there is a “heightened state of awareness,” and communal organizations should not become complacent.

“Jewish organizations should take a closer look at their security policies and make sure they’re up to date,” said Sayles.

The CRC is working with members of the local Muslim community — which also could be vulnerable to attacks — “to make sure we can work together toward security,” said Sayles, noting that the two faith groups have common security concerns that differ in some ways from those in the general public.

While caution is in order, Sayles said, it need not be paralyzing.

“Be alert,” he said. “But don’t be afraid.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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