They expressed relief, concern, embarrassment. They worried about copy-cat calls and being the community that cried wolf. They felt the damage had already been done.
In the days following the arrest of a Jewish teen in Ashkelon, one with American and Israeli citizenship, accused of making bomb threats to over 100 JCCs and other Jewish institutions around the country, local educators and rabbis responded in a variety of mediums and forums. Below is a roundup of some of their thoughts. Some responses have been edited for style, grammar, or length.
For some day schools, the topic of a Jew harming the community is a difficult one to broach. Golda Och Academy, for one, opted not to comment for this story. But Moshe Vaknin, head of the Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph, was scheduled to be speaking with teens in the school’s post-graduate learning program on March 28 (after press time).
At Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (RKYHS) in Livingston, Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, head of school, had taken a wait-and-see approach from the start, which helped manage expectations. He told NJJN, “We explained to our students during the long episode that we should not assume that the threats were part of a larger pattern of anti-Semitic attitudes. We stressed that calls, even to multiple places in a range of states, could be the work of an individual or small group. We iterated that we should show caution but not jump to conclusions about systemic threats to U.S. Jewry.” Therefore, he said, “When discovered that the caller was a lone, unhealthy young adult, students appreciated that we took a cautious approach and although relieved, felt validated.”
Rubin has taken a similar tact with other recent anti-Semitic acts. While urging students to be “vigilant” and “informed,” he also told them, “We need not see individual cases as a systemic, national threat.” RKYHS students, for their part, volunteered to repair the Philadelphia cemetery that had been vandalized. While they were troubled by the expression of hate, he said, “They understand that our security is not threatened by individual and lone cases of anti-Semitic expression.”
The Jewish Educational Center did not respond to NJJN’s request for comment.
Congregational rabbis addressed their relief and continuing concerns in letters to congregants, Facebook postings, teachings, blogs, and in one case, a column in the Star Ledger.
In a March 23 blog post, Rabbi Avi Friedman of Congregation Ohr Shalom/ Summit JCC seemed to capture the community’s shock at the arrest.
“I don’t know who I was expecting, but it certainly was NOT a 19-year-old Jewish kid living in Israel…Wow.” He added, that, assuming detectives have the right suspect, “This news will take a long time to digest.” He wondered, “Will we be the religious minority who cried, ‘Wolf!?’”
Among his colleagues included here, Friedman was alone in directly addressing the suspect’s mental state. “I have no idea what may have driven a 19-year-old American Jew living in Israel to (allegedly) make all these threats on Jewish institutions. I suspect that we will find out that he suffers from some sort of mental illness. However, if it also turns out that he felt slighted, abandoned, ostracized, forgotten, or excluded by a community of which he wanted to be a part, I will not be surprised.”
Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains posted on Facebook, “I’ll say it — this is good news, I’m glad they caught the guy.” In an email to NJJN he wrote that the fact that the events were not organized by a domestic hate group is “good news,” and he saw it as hopeful, that it might “bring down the level of fear” in the Jewish community.
Rabbi Mark Cooper at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, by contrast, took cold comfort in the arrest. He wrote via email “That the culprit in most of the cases of bomb threats turned out to be a disturbed Israeli-American in Ashkelon does not invalidate the concerns of American Jews that anti-Semitism is on the rise.”
Indeed, after the arrest anti-Semitic incidents have continued, including a bomb threat and evacuation on March 26 of a JCC in Dallas and swastikas found in a Phoenix high school on March 27. Moreover, anti-Semitic vandalism has become almost a common occurrence in New Jersey, including a swastika drawn on a South Orange middle school bathroom as well as Instagram posts with anti-Semitic messages by a student at the same school; a menorah in South Orange that was vandalized in December; and swastikas scrawled outside the Union Township home of congressional candidate Peter Jacob and on a bridge in Essex County, not to mention a Philadelphia cemetery that was desecrated last month.
Rabbi Randi Musnitsky at Temple Har Shalom in Warren addressed the teen’s Jewish identity in her March 24 Shabbat message: “We literally shake our heads and bow in embarrassment,” she wrote. “For we Jews have a communal sense of responsibility for our collective actions. It is true that the details and motives of his actions have not been revealed. But will that really make a difference?”
Rabbi Renee Edelman at Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield expressed gratitude for his capture, but added, “We can only hope that his actions do not inspire others to follow in his footsteps.”
In a March 26 guest column in the Star Ledger, Rabbi Cliff Kulwin of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston addressed the letter he received from Pastor Sue Gillespie, treasurer of the Livingston Clergy Association, of which Kulwin is a member. Gillespie’s letter, co-signed by dozens of her congregants, offered words of solidarity with the synagogue community, stating, “We of Trinity Covenant Church send to you and your membership our love and care, and to grieve with you the outrageous threats and actions that have taken place in our country against Jewish Community Centers, synagogues, graveyards and other institutions, and against the peace of all Jews. Such behavior is evil and we hate it, and we will not tolerate it anywhere we encounter it. We’re small in number and can’t offer you much by way of warriors, but we pray for you all to our Lord, whose might and faithfulness dwarf those who want you to be afraid. Please accept this letter as a sign of our common life in Livingston, and common desire for peace and kindness.”
Kulwin was impressed with the letter; he said that although he respects Gillespie, the two congregations previously had no real connection. “The letter unabashedly told us that what our community faced was evil and unacceptable. That the members of the church would brook no quarter in opposing that which threatens us. That to the best of their ability they would follow Ezekiel’s charge that none shall make us afraid. They proved their love with a guarantee of action.
“Life continues. Recent anti-Semitic incidents still make us edgy. But now, they make me a little less edgy. I know I am not alone.”