I had never given a thought to security in a house of prayer until one Friday evening in 1982, when I attended services at Paris’ Rue Copernic Synagogue.
I knew that the shul had been bombed a few years before, but didn’t really think about that until my friends and I got to Rue Copernic — to find both ends of the street blocked by barricades, fierce-looking dogs, and police. In order to gain access to the synagogue, we had to show IDs and have our bags searched.
As I sat in the synagogue that evening, I kept thinking how different the experience was from going to shul in the U.S., where there were no guards, no barricades, and no searches. All too soon, that changed.
Now, almost every faith-based institution and organization has heightened security. We in the Jewish community are learning — thanks in part to programs and services provided by the Jewish federations — how to protect ourselves and our institutions.
We watched as the number of bias crimes against Jews and people of color skyrocketed. We have also become familiar with the phrase unconscious bias, which means “social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness,” according to the University of California San Francisco’s office of diversity and outreach. These are learned and deeply engrained behaviors which affect a person’s understanding, decision-making, and actions.
Which is why the Law Enforcement Officer Training Program (LEO) is so important. Developed 10 years ago by Chhange — the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education in Lincroft — in cooperation with the Office of the Monmouth County Prosecutor, the program helps law-enforcement professionals examine their role in a pluralistic civil society. Since its inception, LEO has offered more than 400 participants the tools to recognize and sensitively address the fears and concerns of those they are sworn to protect, particularly as they confront bias crimes.
For two-and-a-half days last fall, 36 Monmouth County law-enforcement professionals, from prosecutors to officers, engaged in discussion and dialogue aimed at heightening awareness of unconscious bias and increasing sensitivity toward people’s differences. Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey was a co-sponsor of the program.
The group began in Lincroft, where Chhange staff facilitated a discussion about racism and the history of anti-Semitism. An important aspect of the discussions involved understanding the impact of bias, both conscious and unconscious. Afterward, everyone was riveted while listening to a survivor of Jim Crow segregation testify to the realities of U.S. segregation from when she was a child.
The next day, LEO participants traveled with Chhange staff to Washington, D.C., where they toured the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), and had time for introspection and earnest conversation.
Capt. Jeffrey Wilbert, who heads the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office’s Special Investigations Section, and his twin brother, Lt. Joseph Wilbert of the Wall Township Police Force, participated in last fall’s LEO.
Capt. Jeffrey Wilbert is well acquainted with conscious and unconscious bias. His awareness was heightened in 2018, he said, when, as a participant in the FBI’s National Academy, he visited USHMM.
In a telephone interview, he said the experience impressed upon him “the importance of listening to those victimized by anti-Semitism and racism.”
He continued, “Although I’d had the opportunity to visit the Holocaust museum before, I wanted to learn more about the history of hate, so that we can try to break the cycle.”
His brother, Lt. Joseph J. Wilbert, wrote in an email, “I will never understand why people target others for racial, religious, ethical, social, political, ideological and behavioral reasons. But I know the members of my family will continue to stand up for those who are targeted.”
I am no longer naïve about the need for security, which is now a part of organized Jewish life. And I know I will be more comfortable every moment worshiping with my fellow congregants — however we choose to hold services — than I was that evening in the Rue Copernic Synagogue in Paris, thanks in large part to the organizations and local law enforcement professionals working together to ensure all are equally protected.
JoAnn Abraham has held executive marketing and communications positions in Jewish federations. She is on the board of Chhange: The Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education, and is a member of Temple Beth Ahm, Aberdeen.