Specialists coordinate security for area Jewish communities

Jeff Brown and Jimmy Stewart

By Richard Friedman

When Jeff Brown approached Israel’s Western Wall a while back, to deposit a prayer note into its ancient crevices, this Lutheran Midwesterner never could have imagined that one day he would wind up working for the Jewish community.

Yet that’s exactly what came to pass for this former college linebacker who four months ago became the regional security advisor for the Birmingham Jewish community.

Brown, who made several trips to Israel during his FBI career, had something else on his mind as he quietly placed his note in the Wall. “I prayed that my team and I would return home safely — and we did.”

As the leader of an international FBI counter-terrorism team, Brown and his colleagues journeyed to Israel to meet with members of the security services. Though retired now from the Bureau, he won’t elaborate, other than to say that those visits were productive and collaborative.

Sitting in his office at the Birmingham Jewish Federation, the broad-shouldered Brown, relaxed and outgoing, reflected on both the irony of him now working for the Jewish community and how it has imbued him with a new sense of mission, exactly what he was looking for when he decided to retire from the FBI.

His final stint for the Bureau, after numerous overseas deployments and assignments, was as the Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the Birmingham Field Office. Not wanting to leave Birmingham, this new career opportunity seemed ideal. Brown was offered, and happily accepted, a newly-created position as the Birmingham Jewish community’s regional security advisor.

Brown is part of a growing network of such regional security advisors and directors throughout the country. They are employed in partnership with Secure Community Network, a national organization that provides safety and security for Jewish communities across North America, and are co-located within local communities; their positions are typically anchored at and funded by local Jewish Federations.

Last year, New Orleans was one of the earlier communities to hire a community-wide professional, and many more communities are currently in the hiring process.

Heightened Awareness

Brown, who exudes a warm and engaging presence, has stated that a top priority has been to get to know members of the local Jewish community and develop a working knowledge of all of Birmingham’s Jewish Institutions. By doing this he has been deeply touched at how well he’s been received.

He believes the reception he’s gotten reflects a heightened awareness among many community members about the importance of having good preventative security measures in place, along with effective and collectively understood response protocols in case there is trouble.

These are not just theoretical strategies.

As Brown emphasized, based on statistics and accumulated knowledge gained from his diverse FBI career, threats and actions against U.S. Jewish communities have grown significantly over the past decade. Though Jews make up just 2 percent of the U.S. population, the Jewish community is the target of 60 percent of all religious-based hate crimes, Brown is quick to note. He remains deeply concerned about both overseas and domestic threats to the Jewish community.

A Federation-sponsored training session he and other SCN officials conducted for the community on June 29 emphasized both prongs of his mission — to ensure good systems are in place along with collectively understood, rapid response mechanisms in case an incident occurs.

“My job is geared toward establishing a security baseline in our Jewish community here in Birmingham and to understand each Jewish facility. How each views and approaches security is a little bit different,” said Brown, whose goal is “to establish a security culture throughout our community to collectively improve upon our security posture.”

The note that Brown placed in the Western Wall on one of his FBI trips to Israel reflected his purpose then, as the leader of an FBI counter-terrorism team, and his mission now when it comes to protecting the Jewish community. “My note prayed for the safety and security of my team, and my goal now is to provide that same safety and security for our Jewish community.”

The safety of the Jewish community already has been enhanced through Brown’s efforts, said Danny Cohn, CEO of the Birmingham Jewish Federation.

“Since Jeff started, we have rolled out a robust training program for our Jewish institutions and community. Aside from the training, we have been able to offer security assessments to all our Jewish agencies and institutions, as well as audit current security practices to ensure best practices for our entire community.”

Cohn believes that “because of the additional security measures put into place our community has a peace of mind that did not exist before — which is invaluable.”

Federations have a long history of being the “central address” for local Jewish communities, and taking the lead in meeting unmet needs. In a recent strategic planning study done by the Birmingham Jewish Federation, the Jewish community identified increased security as a top need.

Keeping New Orleans Safe

Three hundred and fifty miles to the Southwest, Brown’s New Orleans counterpart, Jimmy Stewart, reflects on his just-completed first full year as community security director, and how gratifying it has been. Stewart, who is Catholic, has developed a burning interest in Judaism and Jewish life because of his new position.

A Scranton, Pa., native and former FBI agent with a long and diverse career in law enforcement, Stewart came to the job not totally unfamiliar with Jews and Judaism, stemming in large part from law enforcement stints he did in New York City, Florida and New Orleans. However, now that he works for the Jewish community, he has embarked on expanding his knowledge.

“I am honored to work for the Jewish community, though it has been a learning curve,” Stewart said. “I’ve had to learn more about Judaism, Shabbat, the High Holidays, etc. But I am not alone. There are a number of non-Jews now working for Secure Community Network.” In response, SCN has produced the manual, “Judaism for Law Enforcement.”

Stewart is enjoying the learning process. “I am constantly reading websites and articles about Judaism and Israel. I am learning things I never thought I would learn. I am learning about a new faith, it is great. I am enjoying expanding my knowledge.” He has not been to Israel but would like to go. He said SCN is planning a trip to Israel for Jewish community security directors.

One of those most enthusiastic about Stewart coming on board is Arnie Fielkow, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.

“Jimmy has spent his first year getting acquainted with all of our local Jewish institutions and he has been very active in hosting security training sessions, making recommendations to our synagogues and agencies on hardening their facilities, and helping lead our community security committee. Jimmy brings a wealth of law enforcement experience to his position.”

Not Just Big City

Stewart is not just a big city guy. He is drawing on his experience as a small-town police chief in Hammond when it comes to getting out of the office and mingling with the community. Visibility, accessibility and availability are essential — whether it’s being a police chief or community security director, said Stewart.

Though he and Birmingham’s Brown are anchored in the largest cities in their states, they also serve as resources for the regional Jewish community. For example, as summer was approaching, Stewart did a training session for counselors and other staff at Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica. Brown will be doing it next summer for the camp.

When it comes to security, Stewart believes the biggest challenge facing the New Orleans Jewish community is sustaining and increasing both government and community funding to maintain and enhance this new initiative. “We need more federal and state money to continually maintain and strengthen our security hardware and provide continued training to the community. We never want to sacrifice security preparedness for lack of funding.”

Like Brown, Stewart’s antenna is up constantly when it comes to growing antisemitism and increasing attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions.

“It’s a growing threat. Even when I was at the FBI, it was a growing threat. It only takes one or two guys to pull an active stunt. And the increasing vandalism we see can lead to violence. If they have the nerve to spray-paint swastikas, what is going to hold them back from attacking members of the Jewish community when they are on their way to synagogue?”

Both Stewart and Brown have been working with their community’s religious institutions to review and enhance security for this year’s High Holy Days.

Stewart, however, is not all lawman. Like his Birmingham colleague, he has football in his background — not as a player, but as a referee. He got his start officiating high school games and expanded to the college ranks. In 2014 he officiated in the Division II national championship game.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said of the officiating. But which is harder — satisfying football coaches or tracking down bad guys?

“That’s a good question,” he answered with a laugh. “I’m not sure.”