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Homeland security partners with Jewish groups on security campaign

WASHINGTON (JTA) — In its first partnership with a faith-based community, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is working with Jewish organizations to expand awareness of suspicious behavior.

The “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign will distribute posters and customized announcements in synagogues, Jewish community centers and related agencies across the country.

Its thrust will be to educate the Jewish community to be on the alert for suspicious behavior and to report the community’s concerns to local law enforcement. The campaign’s rollout has already begun and will continue over the next several months.

“One of the main goals of the campaign is to encourage people to be vigilant, not to be fearful, but to be vigilant,” said John Cohen, a senior Homeland Security official.

“People know what belongs in their community, they know when things look out of place. We’re not looking for the public to make the determination of whether something is terrorist-related.”

The Department of Homeland Security’s special partnership with the Jewish community is based on the recognition that the community is a target for threats, Cohen said.

Two men were arrested last month in connection with an alleged plot to blow up Manhattan synagogues. And last October, two packages found on cargo jets addressed to Chicago-area synagogues contained explosive devices.

Meanwhile, three of the four men convicted last year of plotting to blow up synagogues in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, N.Y., in 2009 are slated to be sentenced Thursday.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano met June 10 at the White House with Jewish leaders to discuss the new partnership and ways to expand Jewish vigilance.

Napolitano spoke at the meeting about the threat facing the Jewish community from radical Islamists and right-wing extremist groups, according to David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

Napolitano understands “very well what links these two groups is deep-rooted hatred,” Harris said. “It’s logical to go to the Jewish community and say ‘let’s partner.’ ”

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, said the new partnership is particularly vital given the reported escalation of threatening statements in the wake of the killing by U.S. forces of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.

“This campaign is an opportunity to involve the grass roots of our community, and to emphasize the importance of security measures and empower them to do more,” said Hoenlein, who was at the meeting with Napolitano.

The emphasis of the new campaign is to have people report suspicious activity. A car parked in a strange way in front of a synagogue or an unknown person taking pictures could be cause to contact authorities, Cohen said. In addition to public education, the Department of Homeland Security is to provide more detailed materials and briefings to security personnel.

William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office for the Jewish Federations of North America, said the response from local Jewish leaders about the campaign has been uniformly positive.

“There’s an understanding among Jewish communal leaders that the Jewish community is unfortunately often a target,” he said.

The visuals and imagery for the campaign material was created specifically for the Jewish community with the help of the Secure Community Network, an initiative funded by the Jewish Federations of North America. One poster depicts what appears to be an abandoned backpack in a hallway leaning against a table with an ornate Star of David on it.

Posters and related material will be distributed to communities through local Jewish federations. The Department of Homeland Security will absorb the cost of the campaign.

The department is looking to expand the program to other faith-based communities, including evangelical Christians and Mormons, according to Cohen. The agency already has started partner campaigns with a number of organizations, including Amtrak and local transit agencies, and within all federal buildings under federal protection.

Homeland Security launched “If You See Something, Say Something” nationwide last year after originating the campaign with New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Paul Goldenberg, national director for the Secure Community Network, said the program is a way to “raise the bar of awareness.”

“The ‘See Something, Say Something’ campaign empowers this community to directly participate in their own safety,” Goldenberg said. “This program focuses on better protecting places where Jewish people come to worship, where they meet and where they socialize.”