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Jewish gathering spots in South Florida ramp up security after anti-Semitic attacks

Charles Rabin, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

MIAMI -- In the past 14 months, attacks on three synagogues around the country have left a dozen dead and several others wounded.

Those deadly shootings, and a string of suspected anti-Semitic attacks in the New York area -- including an incident over the weekend in which five people were stabbed in a rabbi's home -- have left South Florida's Jewish community on edge.

Heavily armed private and police security at Jewish gathering spots throughout South Florida have become routine.

At Temple Beth Shalom on Chase Avenue on Miami Beach, private security guards equipped with flak jackets and heavy weapons protect the perimeter. At the Samuel Scheck Hillel Day School in North Miami Beach, parents dropping off children are forced to stop at a guarded booth and show identification before entering the property.

The David Posnack Jewish Community Center on Miami Beach installed a serpentine-shaped driveway to force cars to a crawl. Even the offices of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation on Biscayne Boulevard are guarded by armor-wearing security personnel who roam the premises. During Shabbat services and the High Holidays, synagogues throughout South Florida have a police presence.

"We're doing this for protection, because we need to," said Jacob Solomon, president and chief executive of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. "As for why these things happen, I guess we're in an age of extraordinary divisiveness."

Already-high tensions only increased after a series of suspected anti-Semitic attacks in the New York City area over the past few weeks. The latest incident: a knife attack over the past weekend at a rabbi's Monsey, N.Y., home in which five people were stabbed, including the rabbi's son.

Now, many South Florida temples, Jewish day schools and other places of congregation are beginning to resemble armed fortresses. Some, like Aventura's Edmond J. Safra Synagogue, a popular Sephardic temple, have erected metal gates and limited access via a single entrance that is guarded by private security experts.

Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez said county police have ramped up patrols at synagogues and other Jewish gathering spots and that detectives working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are reviewing intelligence reports for any perceived threats.

"For the Jewish Community, we're seeing the perfect storm," said Solomon. (Anti-Semitic) people feel like they're given license."

For the most part, Solomon said, the Jewish community in the U.S. has been lucky the past few decades. In South America and places throughout Europe, he said, it's common to see barriers in front of Jewish gathering spots to halt potential car bombs.

"It's pretty chilling," he said.

Stephanie Viegas, a former FBI agent in the Miami office who is now director of community security for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, said she's encouraging synagogues to create their own security teams and practice plans in place for any live crisis. She's leading a training course next month along with the Anti-Defamation League, called "stop the bleeding."

"People will learn how to use tourniquets to stop people from bleeding out, God forbid, if first responders can't get there in time," she said.

Viegas said even before the recent attacks, anti-Semitic incidents were up nearly 20% across the country.

"Why, I don't know," she said. "I'm surprised there's so much hate in this world."

South Florida has one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, with about a half a million Jews living in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. But large Jewish population centers like Miami Beach pose a particular concern to some security experts. While larger temples can afford to hire private security, smaller, less well-financed Chabads -- places of worship in small buildings or even in people's homes -- are more vulnerable.

"It's kind of paradoxical but predictable," said Solomon. "The institutions that need it the most, can afford it the least." To compensate, security experts from his group meet routinely with the heads of Chabads for security sessions, he said.

Five years ago, after seeing a rise in anti-Semitism, the Jewish Federation hired former FBI executive Brenda Moxley to consult on how to protect more than 160 entities in Miami-Dade, including Jewish community centers, synagogues and day schools. The Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County followed suit, hiring another retired FBI special agent to run its security.


Solomon said there are practical ways to teach security. He cited the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in which 11 people were killed and six others injured in what was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history. According to Solomon, the rabbi there was trained by security experts to carry his cellphone at all times, even during the Sabbath, even though the practice is taboo. And Solomon said, the rabbi used his cell to notify police of the attack, who were there within 90 seconds.

"That saved lives," said Solomon.

That October 2018 shooting in Pittsburgh, in which police said Robert Gregory Bowers, 46, killed 11, was the first in a string of deadly attacks at synagogues around the country. Investigators found anti-Semitic screeds on Bower's social media accounts.

It was followed by a shooting last April on the final day of Passover, when police said a teen who posted anti-Semitic remarks on social media walked into the Chabad of Poway Synagogue just outside of San Diego and opened fire with an AR-15, killing one person and injuring three others, including the rabbi.

Then last July, it happened in Miami.

Yosef Lifshutz, 68, was walking toward the front doors of a temple in Northeast Miami-Dade, when police say Carlints St. Louis, 30, pulled up in a Chevrolet Impala, stepped out of the vehicle, assumed a shooting stance and shot the 68-year-old six times. Lifshutz survived but is still recovering from his injuries. St. Louis was arrested three weeks later after an ill-advised visit to a police station in which detectives were able to match bullets found in his car to the crime. He has been charged with a hate crime.

In recent weeks, a series of attacks in the New York area have raised alarm bells.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the weekend attack in Monsey an act of "domestic terrorism." According to the Anti-Defamation League, there were 1,879 anti-Semitic acts in the U.S. in 2018, ranging from physical assaults to the drawing of swastikas.

"If anyone thinks that something poisonous is not going on in this country, then they're in denial," Cuomo said, according to a story in the Washington Post.

The attack even prompted a Tweet from President Donald Trump, who called the stabbings "horrific" and said anti-Semitism must be "eradicated."

Local police said they have increased their presence because of the recent attacks in New York, but chose not to go into specific detail.

In Miami Beach, Police Spokesman Ernesto Rodriguez said patrols have been increased around Jewish community centers and places of worship "out of an abundance of caution."

"There is no place for hate in Miami Beach," he said.

Moxley, the security consultant, no longer works for the Jewish Federation. But she continues to run her security consulting firm and advises clients on ways to stay safe. Physical security barriers offer protection, she said, but awareness and training -- such as that given to the Tree of Life rabbi -- also save lives.

"You want to have a security plan in place and practice it," she said. "Hate should not be tolerated, of any kind."

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