The FBI and Department of Homeland Security will be assisting local Jewish community centers in bolstering security after 16 JCCs in the United States and the United Kingdom received bomb threats on the same day.
Neither JCC in the Greater MetroWest area (which includes JCC MetroWest in West Orange and the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains) was targeted, nor were any other local Jewish community institutions, though JCC MetroWest received a bomb threat in 2012.
“Federation’s Board and leadership are keenly aware of the increased need for vigilance and communal responsibility,” said Dov Ben-Shimon, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. “We should all pay increased attention to security issues in this day and age while celebrating the vibrancy and openness of our community and our society.” He called the bomb threats “another wake-up call.”
In fact, the Greater MetroWest federation board had already approved a package of security initiatives in December, which were to be implemented in February, including the hiring of a chief security officer for the entire Jewish community. That person, according to Ben-Shimon, will be responsible for “connecting the dots” among all the local Jewish institutions, agencies and organizations; mapping out the security needs of the community; finding the gaps; and raising the level of security. The enhanced security will also include an early warning alert system for community institutions and increased training and awareness drills, Ben-Shimon said.
“Our Jewish federation for many years has been deeply committed to security, and under the leadership of our board and our president, Leslie Dannin Rosenthal, we have seen that commitment deepen,” he said, noting the regular, ongoing conversations between Dannin Rosenthal and federal, state, and local authorities.
Officials from the FBI and Homeland Security were expected to conduct a conference call with U.S. Jewish communal leaders on Wednesday to discuss the threats, what they stem from, and how to craft protocols to handle such incidents in the future. Some communities already receive federal grants to provide for security.
Ben-Shimon confirmed before press time that representatives from Greater MetroWest would participate in the call. While New Jersey communities have received some such grants, Ben-Shimon said he is “hopeful” there will be more to come.
JCC Association of North America released a prepared statement applauding the staffs of Jewish community centers around the country and expressing gratitude for local law enforcement. “We are proud of our JCCs and grateful for their professional staff, who in the face of threatened violence today, responded quickly, calmly, and professionally by implementing well-practiced evacuation procedures and ensuring that no one was harmed,” said David Posner, director of strategic performance at the JCC Association.
The bomb threats, none of which appear credible, hit JCCs up and down the East Coast, in addition to two in the United Kingdom, prompting evacuations of buildings and campuses. According to Jewish communal security officials, the bomb threats came both from robocalls and live telephone calls. It remains unclear whether one person or group was behind all the threats.
The U.S. JCCs affected ranged from one in northern New Jersey to several in the Southeast — including in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. In addition, JCCs in Maryland, Delaware, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania received threats. Several Jewish institutions received bomb threats last week.
The simultaneous threats were unprecedented, according to Paul Goldenberg, the director of the Secure Community Network, a group affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America that coordinates security for the Jewish community.
The FBI is investigating the bomb scares, according to Goldenberg.
One of the threatened communities, in Wilmington, Delaware, received a bomb threat at 11:45 a.m. Monday and evacuated some 200 people from a complex housing four Jewish organizations. Everyone from preschoolers at a Jewish day school to senior citizens eating lunch left the building within a few minutes. They returned about 90 minutes later.
“There was a scare, but a manageable uneasiness,” Seth Katzen, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Delaware, said. “Everyone moved extremely well. It was to create panic and inconvenience, which it did. That is our new reality.”
Neither Goldenberg nor the Anti-Defamation League explicitly tied the bomb threats to the rise of anti-Semitic attacks during and after the 2016 presidential campaign. Goldenberg said making such a link may be tempting, but would be premature given that the offender has not been identified.
The New York Police Department, as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center, have released reports of a rise in hate crimes following the election. Goldenberg expects more attacks on religious institutions to take place in 2017.
Over the past two years, Jewish federations in major urban areas have hired coordinators — mostly former federal law enforcement officials — to ensure that all local Jewish institutions are secure and prepared to face threats.
Others point out that Jewish institutions began “hardening” their security after the 1999 attack on the North Valley Jewish Community Center near Los Angeles, when a white supremacist opened fire in the JCC lobby and wounded five people.
In April 2014, a 73-year-old neo-Nazi opened fire at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City, Kansas, and Village Shalom, a nearby Jewish retirement community, killing three people.
Local Jewish institutions started beefing up security in the aftermath of a 2006 incident at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, during which one person was killed and five injured when an American-born Muslim opened fire.
By the time of the Kansas City shootings, local communities had been increasing security measures for a decade. In a 2014 NJJN report, although some Jewish institutions ramped up their security in response, others declined, saying they believed they had already taken “every necessary and reasonable step to prevent such an incident.”
In 2011, New Jersey ranked fifth in terms of federal grants received based on number of grants and allocations, which totaled $1.8 million and included yeshivot, synagogues, and day schools around the state.
Stuart Raynor, JCC MetroWest CEO, declined to comment.