CHICAGO — Leaders of Jewish institutions in Chicago put their staffs on alert today following the overseas discovery of U.S.-bound packages aboard cargo jets that contained explosives.
President Barack Obama said authorities had uncovered a “credible terrorist threat” against the United States and that two packages had been addressed to Jewish places of worship in the Chicago area. Chicago FBI spokesman Ross Rice said in a statement that all churches, synagogues and mosques in the area should be vigilant.
Authorities did not say which places were targeted and none have confirmed being told the packages were addressed to them.
“There’s certainly cause for concern,” said Dan Elbaum, regional director of the American Jewish Committee Chicago, an office of the global Jewish advocacy group. “These things do happen from time to time. Horrible acts have happened at Jewish institutions across the country and across the world so you need to be vigilant.”
The first word came to many Chicago synagogues and Jewish groups this morning. Security precautions are nothing new to many Jewish organizations, so many simply reminded their employees of current practices.
Rabbi Michael Siegel of Chicago’s Anshe Emet synagogue told the Chicago Tribune the congregation will not accept UPS packages until “we know the danger has passed.” Siegel told the newspaper his synagogue updated its security after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, including hiring off-duty police officers to monitor the building.
“Honestly, we are maintaining the existing level of vigilance,” said Richard Hirschhaut, executive director of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. “This is a secure facility and we are always cognizant of ensuring the safety of our visitors, employees and volunteers.”
Hirschhaut said he learned about the packages through “a cascade” of news media alerts and e-mails. He had his director of security, a retired FBI agent, look into it. He learned that “the two institutions that were targeted were appropriately briefed by law enforcement officials,” Hirschhaut said.
An official at the Chicago office of the Anti-Defamation League, David Schneider, said the office was alerted by the FBI on Friday morning to take precautions. The FBI specifically included warnings to keep an eye out for suspicious packages arriving by mail.
Jewish groups have dealt with threats before, he said, so there was a procedure in place to get word out to league members around the country.
“We’ve long known the Jewish community has been the subject of threats. … But I wouldn’t say we’re taking it in stride,” he said. “It’s something that’s of concern.”
He added that there were no recommendations that Jewish groups should cancel any events.
The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago advised local synagogues to take precautions after being notified about the situation, said Linda Haase, the federation’s associate vice president. Haase declined to say who notified the federation or specifically what the group was told.
Elbaum said Chicago staffers of the American Jewish Committee have been told not to open suspicious packages, but instead to isolate and contain them and to notify law enforcement. He said he contacted people he personally knows in law enforcement but wasn’t able to learn anything specific about which institutions were targeted.