Monday, November 1, 2010

In Yemen Terror Plot, Synagogues Get No Contact From FBI

November 1, 2010 - Chicago - The story about the explosive-filled printer cartridge terror plot from Yemen is still developing. On Friday it was learned that improvised explosive devices were addressed to some synagogues in Chicago and were on cargo planes bound for Chicago. This morning, Chicago News Bench (CNB) spoke to Chicago Rabbi Michael R. Zedek (photo) by phone as he was visiting family in Pennsylvania. “Some sources said the synagogues were in the East Rogers Park and Lakeview neighbourhoods. One of the congregations, Or Chadash, serves gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews,” reported the Herald Scotland on October 31. Today, however, authorities in the U.S. and in allied nations are saying that they believe the bomb makers’ intention was to damage the planes, not the synagogues. This begs a still-unanswered questions: Why address them to actual synagogues in Chicago, and why the specific ones that they chose? There is some confusion in the media about the synagogues, which have been referred to by many news outlets as “the synagogues were in the East Rogers Park and Lakeview.” They are Congregation Emanuel and Congregation Or Chadash, and both are in Edgewater, a neighborhood on Chicago’s northern lakefront, the 48th Aldermanic Ward. The foreign press can be forgiven this, but local newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times have no good excuse (and too often mislabel neighborhoods). Both congregations are housed in Congregation Emanuel’s synagogue building at 5959 N. Sheridan Road in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood. Or Chadash has shared the facility for about seven years. Because the Or Chadash and Emanuel share the same building, mail deliveries to either go to the same address. Rabbi Zedek said that one of the suspicious packages was addressed to Congregation Or Chadash. According to the Herald Scotland report, “The terrorist bomb found at East Midlands Airport on Friday could have blown a plane right out of the sky, Home Secretary Theresa May admitted yesterday after an emergency meeting of the Cobra crisis response team. May said the device was a ‘viable’ weapon that could have been used to target the aircraft itself, rather than the Jewish-American group in Chicago to which it was addressed.” It is still not known for certain whether the intended targets were synagogues or airplanes. One theory is that this may have been a practice run by terrorists to test security measures in preparation for an actual attack in the future. The emphasis of the story has shifted away from the Chicago synagogues. Authorities are now warning religious institutions nationwide to beware of suspicious packages with no return address on them. The shifted emphasis does not make Rabbi Michael Zedek any less uncomfortable with the situation. Rabbi Zedek has been with Congregation Emanuel in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood for around six years. Congregation Emanuel has about 400 member families. The recent bomb scare is not the first time that the congregation has felt threatened. On August 3, 2009, for example, the synagogue was targeted for a weird protest by the Westboro Baptist Church. That was a non-violent event, and not the usual type of harassment lobbed at Emanuel. “We’ve had some other past events, but nothing out of the ordinary,” Rabbi Zedek told CNB today. “Graffiti, some hate mail. The only suspicious packages we’ve received up to now have contained hate mail.” Congregation Emanuel enjoys strong support from neighbors of all faiths, and hundreds turned out to counterprotest the Westboro Baptists last year. (See slideshow) CNB spoke with Congregation Or Chadash’s Rabbi Larry Edwards on Sunday, Oct. 31. He said that he does not believe that the sexual orientation of congregation members would have been a factor in deciding to address a bomb package to Or Chadash. Rabbi Zedek agreed with that notion. CNB asked Rabbi Zedek if he thought whether it would seem that bringing down a dozen or more aircraft in a coordinated attack would have a more stunning terroristic effect than would attacking a few synagogues in Chicago. “Yes,” he said. Asked why the bomb plotters might have targeted Or Chadash in Chicago, Rabbi Zedek said, “I don’t know anybody’s motives. We received a first warning at noon Friday that were suspicious packages going to Jewish institutions, but not specifically in Chicago. Then we were informed that there were four synagogues targeted and that Or Chadash was one of them.” He added, “It seems to me they might be driven by the motivation of disruption in general.” Despite headlines in newspapers around the world, such as The Australian’s Gay Jews a target for parcel bomb plotters,” it seems now that the sexual orientation of Or Chadash’s congregants is irrelevant and is instead merely coincidence. As indicated above, authorities now believe that none of the synagogues were targeted but merely provided a mailing address as an excuse to get the bombs on board the cargo planes. A Chicago Tribune report on October 30 misquoted Rabbi Zedek. Reporters Cynthia Dizikes and Christi Parsons wrote that he said “an official in Chicago's Jewish community called him late Friday afternoon about the suspicious packages allegedly bound for the city.” However, that's not what he said. Rabbi Zedek told CNB emphatically that he “never said the person was ‘an official.’ I said they were ‘well placed’ in the Jewish community and ‘reliable’.” Rabbi Zedek said that he first learned of the suspected bomb threat around 12:00 noon on Friday. He said that an off-duty Chicago Police officer employed as security guard at the synagogue told him that his sergeant told him about a warning from authorities about suspicious packages going to houses of worship. Rabbi Zedek emphasized that the warning was for all houses of worship, not just synagogues. A Chicago Police sergeant visited Congregation Emanuel on “late Friday afternoon” to discuss the matter, said Rabbi Zedek, but that’s been the only law enforcement official - at any level - to contact him as of 9:30 a.m. Monday, November 1. There has been no contact from the FBI, Homeland Security or any other agency other than the CPD. The only other contact has been from 48th Ward Alderman Mary Ann Smith (photo), said Rabbi Zedek. Smith called to assure him that police patrols would be beefed up around the synagogue. Ald. Smith is not a law enforcement official per se. As of Monday morning, 9:30 a.m., no other law enforcement authorities had contacted him. In mid-October, a congregation member who helps with their website was looking at the website’s statistics. She noted that there were 83 hits in one day from the same IP address in Cairo. “That’s Cairo, Egypt, not Illinois,” said Rabbi Zedek. She mentioned the Cairo hits to one of the lay leaders at Congregation Emanuel, but at the time he didn’t think it was significant. In light of recent events, however, Rabbi Zedek feels it might be significant and plans to turn the IP address over to the authorities. “My recollection is that they were the same IP address,” said Rabbi Zedek. More questions: Even if, as authorities are now saying, the synagogues were not the real targets, why would somebody in Egypt visit Congregation Emanuel's website more than 80 times in a single day (let alone even once)? And, finally, why have the federal authorities been so lax about contacting congregations Emanuel and Or Chadash? RELATED: Napolitano: More security measures due to air cargo explosives CNN International US issues mail advisory, tightens cargo scrutiny‎ BusinessWeek Saudi emerges as prime suspect in failed Yemen bomb plot‎ Vancouver Sun The Yemen bomb mystery – no mystery at all Ray Cook Jews Worried About Their Mail After Mail Bomb Plot The Gothamist (New York)