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Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County Hires New Security Chief

Peter Haden
Former FBI special agent and executive Rusty Willis is the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County’s first Director of Community Security. Dec. 18, 2017.";

South Florida has one of the largest Jewish populations in the country. And threats against Jewish institutions in South Florida and across the country are up.

The Anti-Defamation League says nationally anti-Semitic incidents jumped around 75 percent in the first half of 2017. Florida Gov. Rick Scott is proposing an additional $1 million for security at Jewish schools in this year’s state budget.

The Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County recently hired its first director of community security. Rusty Willis is a former special agent and executive with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The federation manages the philanthropic efforts of the Jewish community. It partners with synagogues, day schools and other agencies.

Willis recently spoke with WLRN’s Peter Haden about his new role.

WLRN: Why does the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County need a director of security now? Why the creation of a new position?

Willis: I think it's important because the threat level in today's environment, I believe, is very high. And obviously the Jewish community has been and will more than likely continue to be potential targets.

Why is the threat level high now, higher than it's been?

Well, I think, mainly, the recent resurgence of the white supremacist movement. Also what worries me a great deal is this move toward recruiting people over the internet. It's not not a matter of enemies coming to our country from other countries — it's the enemy within that worries me the most.

What does the director of community security here at the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County do?

"...what worries me a great deal is this move toward recruiting people over the internet. It's not not a matter of enemies coming to our country from other countries — it's the enemy within that worries me the most."

My goal would be to to provide service with respect to all kinds of threats, whether that be a terrorist event -- active shooter, bomb threat -- or if that happened to be a natural disaster -- hurricane, etc.In the bureau we called it, “target hardening,” but facility hardening, access control, video surveillance, [acting as a] liaison with our state federal and local law enforcement and intelligence partners. And then acting as a consultant for the community at large - the various synagogues, temples, etc.

Security protocols for the federation and the community at large have been in place for a very long time. And it’s going to be my job, my mission, to increase our security posture even more in the future.

How will your previous experience throughout your FBI career inform how you approach this position?

My previous experience makes it much easier for me to connect with the law enforcement community because I speak the language. I have a reputation. It's been easy for me to establish a really positive liaison relationship with the FBI office here in West Palm.

Is there anything specific to South Florida — threats or emergency events or community dynamics — that make the job different than it would be in Cincinnati, for example?

I think the main thing to me is just the size of the Jewish population here in South Florida as compared to other areas of the country. In Palm Beach, there’s a significant number of temples and synagogues, for example, which are all potential targets.

The last question is a little bit personal but as it relates to your understanding of the Jewish community -- did you grow up Jewish? Are you Jewish?

I am not.

Credit Peter Haden / WLRN
The Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County in West Palm Beach. Dec. 18, 2017.

As someone who is not Jewish, have you had to sort of walk in the shoes of Jewish people living in Palm Beach County or try to fully understand what Jewish people may feel in terms of threats to their safety?

During my interaction with everybody, I've tried to get a feel for their fears and their level of concern. I grew up, well, I grew up Christian, so obviously I don't have a direct understanding of the Jewish faith and the Jewish culture and the Jewish perspective. But I'm rapidly gaining that here. And I think it's it's easy to understand how someone of the Jewish faith would feel like a potential target more so than than than others. Sure.

That’s one of the reasons I was drawn to this job. I have a good friend who is a security director in the Cleveland federation. He's been there about five years. And he has really developed an appreciation for the culture and the giving mentality. These people are  doing wonderful things for all the right reasons. And I, really, I just wanted to be a part of it.