Rabbi Bill Hamilton is a seasoned traveler to Israel. Over decades, the rabbi at Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline has spent considerable time in the country, enriching his life professionally and personally, as well as leading groups and officiating at life cycle events.
But his most recent trip, as a participant in the Anti-Defamation League New England’s Massachusetts Counter-Terrorism Seminar, was eye opening. The 10-day trip in January offered a rare opportunity to go behind the scenes to gain insights – and hands-on experience – about how Israel responds to threats to public safety, including terrorist attacks.
“It’s a part of Israeli society that was new to me,” said Rabbi Hamilton, a chaplain to the Massachusetts State Police and a board member of ADL New England.
The group of some of the state’s top law enforcement officials and leaders included Middlesex Attorney General Dan Conley, Suffolk District Attorney Marian Ryan, the superintendent of police for Boston, half a dozen local police chiefs or deputies, and agents from Federal agencies.
The delegation met with high-ranking officers in Israel’s National Police, experts in communications and airport security. One day was spent in Bethlehem, the West Bank Palestinian town where the group met with the head of its police, Colonel Ala Shalabi.
This was the sixth counter-terrorism study trip sponsored by New England ADL. What sets it apart from similar trips organized at the national level is its local focus, said Robert Trestan, ADL’s regional director.
These are professionals whose work lives overlap and who cross paths professionally, he pointed out. “This experience, we believe, enhances their ability to keep Massachusetts safe,” he emphasized.
Participants came away with a toolkit they can draw on for a wide range of issues, Trestan said, from managing a terror scene and evidence collection to effective public communications.
ADL has a unique partnership with the Israel National Police, the country’s national civilian force that carries a dual responsibility of traditional policing as well as national security. Last December, Roni Alsheic, a former Shin Bet official and an expert on counterterrorism, took the reigns as the new chief of Israel’s National Police.
There are differences in legal standards for police work between the two countries, Trestan acknowledged, but “their jobs on the ground to protect the public are very similar. The threats are different but they need to be equally skilled and trained,” he said.
“Ultimately, they [law enforcement professionals] are responsible for keeping us safe. Anything we can do that enhances that is value added,” to Massachusetts residents, he said.
Middlesex District Attorney Dan Conley, who has traveled to Israel before, paid particular attention to the responsibilities of gathering evidence fairly and ethically, one of his most important duties, he wrote in an email. “It’s a balancing test that weighs the rights of the individual against the rights of society.”
He was similarly impressed by Israel’s success in suppressing gun violence, a top issue of concern in Boston and other large cities.
Israel has “an impressive, publicly-deployed camera network that law enforcement can access immediately,” Conley wrote. In the U.S., police must rely on private residents and businesses who may have surveillance footage – after a crime. It’s something that ought to be studied here, he suggested.
While Israelis live with the realities of severe terrorist alerts, Rabbi Hamilton said delegates were struck by the swift restoration of normal life, soon after terrorist attacks.
It’s an observation that stood out for Helena Rafferty, deputy chief of police in Canton, who admired the quick turnaround to clean and reopen sites that have been attacked. “It’s an unbelievable psychological advantage,” she observed, one that sends out a message, “We are not going to cower. We are back in business.”
Israel’s centralized law enforcement training creates strong bonds during an officer’s formative years, Rafferty observed. A similar approach to training state and local police in Massachusetts would go a long way to building relationships and reduce bias, she believes.
Rafferty commended the Israeli officials for providing them the opportunity to meet with the chief of police in Bethlehem, a town important to Christians, Jews and Muslims. Their sparse police headquarters were a stark contrast with the new state-of-the-art facility for its training academy, Rafferty observed.
On a personal level, Rafferty, raised in a devout Irish Catholic family, revealed that the trip was an emotional and poignant experience. Rafferty’s 101-year-old grandmother, who had always dreamed of visiting Israel, became ill and died while Rafferty was there visiting the holy sites so pivotal to their faith.
At her grandmother’s funeral, held after Rafferty returned home, she tied her eulogy with the trip. “It was an amazing journey,” Rafferty said, as if she had gone on a pilgrimage for her grandmother.
The trip included both training in law enforcement and visits to historic and biblical sites that touched the inner lives of the participants. “The whole experience oscillated between security and sanctity,” observed Rabbi Hamilton.
Rafferty and Rabbi Hamilton both emphasized that the trip forged relationships between the participants who are now able to call on each other for professional guidance and support.
There’s now a large cohort of law enforcement professionals who are alumni of these New England ADL security missions to Israel, Rabbi Hamilton noted.
“There’s a way now they can connect and collaborate. Israel has become the vehicle for that,” he said.