MILWAUKEE – When Milwaukee Jewish Federation Director of Security & Community Properties Ari Friedman was busily texting with the Wisconsin Jewish Agencies Emergency Group in January, he didn’t know it would be a false alarm.
The texting group, set up within an app by the Federation, allows synagogues and other Jewish organizations to instantly communicate with one another. In January, there were four males seen hanging around synagogues.
One synagogue texted a photo of the men, from a surveillance camera, and Friedman shared it with the group. Meanwhile, at a Jewish agency, employees were dispatched to keep an eye on entrances. Soon, someone approached the men, who turned out to be students from a Lutheran seminary. They weren’t troublemakers. They were working on a project for a comparative religion class.
“This was a real-world test,” Friedman said. “The fact of the matter is the system worked.”
It was a false alarm, he said, but a great trial run of the system, one that’s a part of a much larger security and anti-hate effort driven by the Federation.
While Friedman is working on security against hate’s potential results, others in the Federation are working to keep it from starting or snowballing. Elana Kahn, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, is a key player in that effort.
“Countering hate is the essential purpose of our work,” she said. Ultimately, the Jewish Community Relations Council exists to protect and defend the Jewish people, through partnerships, strategy and by cultivating allies.
Kahn’s contributions can be speaking publically or working behind the scenes, like serving on a coalition committee with other leaders, giving them a chance to get know the Jewish people and Jewish concerns, through her.
“We counter hatred through relationship building,” she said. Human decision making is often affected by such relationships, she said: “Who do I trust? Who do I identify with?”
Kahn feels the core Jewish values of the Jewish Community Relations Council are vital, among them tikkun olam (repair the world), shalom bayit (peace in the home), b’tselem elohim (all are created in God’s image) and darchei shalom (pursue pathways of peace).
“The essential values of this work are understanding what happens to you happens to me,” she said.
At the end of the day, the Jewish Community Relations Council has three top priorities – education and advocacy on Israel, separation of church and state, and fighting anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination.
The Milwaukee Jewish Federation also educates on the Holocaust and hate through its Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center and Jewish Museum Milwaukee, among other initiatives. This includes Hours Against Hate, “an initiative that urges people to take personal action to counter hatred by introducing them to people who don’t love, look or pray like they do,” Kahn said.
Building up security
A recent apparent uptick in hate has kept Federation’s security director busy.
Friedman was a key part of the security team during the recent threats against the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, which sits on Federation property, the Karl Jewish Community Campus in Whitefish Bay.
Friedman, who is certified with the federal Department of Homeland Security in critical infrastructure protection, provides local Jewish agencies with guidance for their crisis management plans and physical security enhancements to properties. He’s done threat assessments and staff trainings at synagogues, including how to improve their access control.
His advice for both Jewish professionals and people in the community is to remain vigilant. The arrest of an American-Israeli suspect for threats against Jewish community centers does not end anti-Semitism. It does not explain recent cemetery vandalism, for example.
“I’d like people to just be more aware,” Friedman said.
If you see something, say something.