The JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains was among a group of JCCs to receive bomb threats on Jan. 18, forcing an evacuation, just nine days after similar threats were received at 16 JCCs across the United States and the United Kingdom. The Central JCC was one of at least 30 Jewish institutions in 17 states threatened on Jan. 18, as was the JCC of Middlesex County in Edison, according to media reports.
While members and staff felt safe by early afternoon, some, including those at other local Jewish agencies, expressed a concern about the rising anti-Semitism the threats reflect.
Lauren Bernstein of Scotch Plains was in the fitness center when someone walked in and announced that they needed to evacuate.
“We all kind of knew what it was because of what happened last week. But I was thinking, ‘Just get out of here quickly because, who knows?’ Is it just a threat or is it real? You never know,” she said. Bernstein didn’t return to the fitness center because she had to get to work, but she was back the next morning as usual. “It’s a sad state of affairs that this is normal, that this is our reality now.”
Reuben Rotman, executive director of Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, said the incident raised concerns at several Jewish organizations. “People who were here yesterday, including non-Jews, were asking, ‘Am I safe if I go to a Jewish agency?’ and ‘Why are they targeting JCCs?’”
The Scotch Plains threat came in by telephone shortly after 9 a.m., according to Jennifer Mamlet, executive director of the JCC of Central NJ. They called law enforcement and were instructed to evacuate immediately.
“Thankfully, we do drills all the time and everyone stayed calm,” Mamlet said. County officers arrived with a canine unit and they made sure the interior and exterior of the building were safe before allowing the evacuees, which included preschoolers, members in the fitness center, staff, and several seniors, to reenter the building at approximately 10 a.m. Mamlet added, “This is why we do drills: to be ready to respond.”
Myrna Gordon of Scotch Plains arrived at the JCC around 9:40 a.m., before the building was reopened, and she noticed the children outside. “It’s a terrible thing to do to the Jewish community. What did we do that we deserve this?” she asked. “And this, a JCC, open to everyone — I have friends here who aren’t Jewish here.” Still, Gordon said she felt safe, particularly because a new security system requiring members to swipe an identification card to get inside was recently installed.
By 2 p.m. it was business as usual at the JCC, with parents picking up children, adults coming to work out, and seniors departing for the day, although at about that time a police car drove around the premises and through the parking lot before departing.
Parents of children in the preschool, along with staff, praised the JCC administration’s reactions to the threat. Upon picking up her four-year-old daughter, a woman from Westfield told NJJN that while she is “definitely worried” because the threats across the United States appeared to be part of a coordinated effort, she was still comfortable with her daughter’s well-being. “The kids are used to having drills and she hasn’t mentioned it,” said the woman, who requested her name not be used. “I even asked if anything interesting happened today and she said, ‘Nope.’”
But Shafora Kareem, a nanny who came to pick up a child from preschool, was anxious about what the child might have picked up during the day. Referring to herself and the child’s parent, she said, “We are worried about what the child will say.” Unlike many of the JCC members coming and going that afternoon, Kareem expressed larger concern. “We have to be a worried. You never know what people could be doing.”
Gerri Zimmerman of Clark, who chose this particular day to explore becoming a member, hadn’t heard about the threats until speaking with NJJN and said that the news was disconcerting. “I’m worried about all the stuff that’s going on. It’s not getting any better.” But she wasn’t deterred from going inside. “I feel as safe here as at a mall or anywhere.”
Matt Zucker, 16, and Cori Bernstein, 17, who both attend Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School and work in the JCC children’s aftercare program, felt comfortable arriving for work after school. “I think they did a good job scoping things out,” said Matt.
Cori, the daughter of Lauren Bernstein who was evacuated from the fitness center earlier in the day, said she thought it was “weird” that the threats at JCCs “just keep happening.” But Cori said they have become somewhat nonchalant about these incidents because “we hear about bomb threats all the time in our high school.”
Gerald K. Schwartz of Miami Beach, who was visiting his son in Fanwood, said that he was unshaken, but took the incidents seriously. His hometown JCC in Miami Beach had been targeted in the first wave as well as this second one.
“It’s just terrible that it’s happening all over the country,” he said. “I’m not worried because it’s phone calls, but it’s just upsetting. There’s this anti-Semitism we’re seeing now that we had not seen for a long time.”
The Anti-Defamation League listed threats in 16 states, some in multiple cities: New York, Ohio, New Jersey, Florida, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Delaware, Connecticut, Alabama, Maine, California, Tennessee, South Carolina, Missouri, Minnesota, and Texas. All of the threats were found to be false.
The JCC Association of North America tweeted at 11:42 a.m., “We are aware of a number of bomb threats at JCCs. Js are working directly w/local authorities to make sure that people & premises are safe.”
Jacob Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, said their response, as well as that of the JCC of Middlesex County in Edison, was a result of staff members adhering to security protocol, both before and after the threats were received, and cooperation from local authorities.
“Dealing with bomb threats is a matter of institutional and community planning,” said Toporek. “The evacuation efforts this morning in response to bomb threats at the JCC of Middlesex County in Edison and the JCC of Central NJ here in Scotch Plains were efficiently carried out. Police response was quick.”
Toporek testified Jan. 19 at a hearing of the NJ Assembly Homeland Security Committee on behalf of a bill calling for a three-year pilot program to aid security for non-profit organizations. The bill, with grants covering up to $10,000 for the hiring of security personnel, was approved and is now in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
In 2016, New Jersey received a total of $4,260,515 in federal non-profit security grants, with the majority, 46 out of 57 grants, awarded to Jewish community institutions, according to Toporek. That number is up significantly from 2011, when New Jersey received $1.8 million.