Last month’s at two Fair Lawn parks and the delivery of an anti-Semitic letter to the have prompted the borough council to take action.
“With the number of instances that have occurred, we just can’t sit back and watch,” said , who proposed forming an interfaith committee at the Jan. 24 council work session. “We really have to make sure we are on top of this, from the local level to the federal level.”
As it turns out, Sgt. Richard Schultz unknowingly laid the groundwork for such a community interfaith group late last year while performing his standard end-of-year functions.
“I was doing all the file updates for the alarm contacts and I realized I didn’t have the contacts for the houses of worships,” said Schultz, who set out to compile a convenient mass reference list of Fair Lawn’s houses of worship in case the need to quickly contact all of them ever arose.
Following , Schultz independently conceived of forming an interfaith group and had started working on it even before council assigned him leadership of the task.
Schultz’ conception of the group is as a sort of interfaith community block watch that focuses on crime prevention and security issues. By the end of February, he plans to hold an initial meeting with the and members from the nearly 30 houses of worship in town to educate them on security best practices and the development of emergency evacuation plans, among other things.
Schultz believes the key is instilling the town’s religious leaders with a security-minded approach that can be cultivated amongst themselves in subsequent periodic meetings.
“The people have to have a vested interest in it and they have to put work into it,” Schultz said. “If the group is going to rely on the police to keep it going, then it’s not going to survive.”
A good start, Schultz said, is getting congregants to stay on the lookout for suspicious activity at any religious institution in town.
“You may be a congregant of ,” he said, “but as you pass the , what’s the big deal if you look over your shoulder and try to take a quick look to see what’s going on around the building?”
Schultz equated the block watch mentality to the old adage that it takes a village to raise a child.
“Everybody has to have that mindset, everybody has to be looking out the window,” he said. “Regardless of whether you’re a Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, whatever it might be, we’re all members of the community, so it shouldn’t make a difference what the faith is – if it’s an attack on one it’s an attack on all.”
Maintaining a renewed sense of vigilance will not be an easy task, Schultz acknowledged.
“It’s not going to be easy because you’ve got to change people’s habits, you’ve got to change their mindset,” he said. “Things that happen in the newspaper bring it to the forefront, and for that brief hot minute in time everybody gets on the same page. But then once it starts to settle down, everybody goes back to their old habits.”
One factor working in the town’s favor will be the institutional knowledge gleaned during Fair Lawn’s earlier attempt at forming an interfaith group a few years ago.
Community Emergency Response Team volunteer Steve Kobrin, in conjunction with the police and OEM, formed the previous committee, which sought to form an alliance for safety and security among Fair Lawn’s religious institutions.
“People were interested,” said Kobrin, who believes Fair Lawn -- with its history of volunteerism and large number of religious institutions -- is well equipped to coordinate such a council.
“There is a history of bias incidents in the town. We are bisected by major highways on which dangerous materials are transported…there could be an emergency of some kind or another.”
Unfortunately for religious institutions, the committee was forced to cease operations shortly after forming due to cuts in the police force and OEM.
“The rug was pulled out from under it due to the budget priorities of the town,” Kobrin said. “How do you [establish an emergency escape plan] if the OEM’s hours are cut? If you want members and officials of congregations to go through the police academy, how can you do that if you cut the personnel in the community policing department?”
Although the previous committee failed to achieve any of its concrete goals, Kobrin said houses of worship had begun to realize that they faced similar safety challenges and could play unique roles within the community to combat intolerance.
“Religious congregations have a very special, well-developed sensitivity to [intolerance and hate],” Kobrin said. “It makes sense that religious institutions would take the lead on hate issues. Even if your particular house of worship is not targeted, the attitude really is, ‘Not in my town.’”
Among the characteristics that make religious institutions uniquely equipped to perform a protective community function are their large reach.
"If they're on board with these issue then the town can really contact 30 houses of worship and in the process contact thousands of residents, because each has lines to its congegants," Kobrin said. "If organized and mobilized, the town could reach a good portion of the population through them."
While a lack of time is preventing Kobrin from being directly involved with the current incarnation of the interfaith group, he’s been in touch with Schultz to network and share what he’s learned from his own experience.
“I wish him much success,” Kobrin said of Schultz. "His idea of an interfaith block watch is solid...It would be wonderful if congregants of 30-plus houses of worship in Fair Lawn served as eyes and ears.”