A wave of bomb threats Monday against Jewish community centers in the East and South — one of which forced the evacuation of the Bender JCC of Greater Washington — is being called unprecedented and has prompted a round of meetings between U.S. law enforcement and Jewish communities.
“What is unprecedented is, in the shortest period of time, we received a substantial number of bomb threats,” said Paul Goldenberg, the director of Secure Community Network, the group affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America that coordinates security for the Jewish community. “These offenders are leveraging technology to intimidate and/or terrorize communities.”
Some 200 preschool children were evacuated from the Bender JCC in Rockville after it received a telephone call warning of a bomb in the facility. The call was one of a string of 16 bomb threats called into JCCs Monday morning. No bombs were discovered.
Some calls were prerecorded and others were live, with the caller using voice disguising technology, and likely came from a single source, Goldenberg said.
The FBI is investigating the bomb scares, according to Goldenberg.
An FBI spokeswoman said the agency is in communication with local law enforcement officials about Monday’s bomb threats, but declined to say whether the FBI is conducting an investigation.
At press time Tuesday, no arrests had been announced. Law enforcement agencies and Jewish community spokesmen would not say if the threats were connected. But they did note an increase in hate crimes over the last 18 months, particularly following November’s presidential election. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there have been more than 1,000 hate incidents since the election, 100 of which were anti-Semitic.
The Bender JCC was the only one of three Washington-area JCCs to receive a bomb threat, though Baltimore’s Park Heights JCC was evacuated after it received a telephoned warning.
Bender’s front desk receptionist received a call at 11:52 a.m. from a woman who said there was a bomb in the building and promptly hung up, said Executive Director Michael Feinstein.
JCC staff called police and evacuated the building, which is protocol in the event of a bomb threat, Feinstein said.
Teachers and staff walked preschool students to the Charles E Smith Jewish Day School’s lower school, across the street from the JCC. Other staff members went to Charles E. Smith Life Communities, adjacent to the JCC campus. Center members received a text that the facility was closing for an emergency.
“We initially communicated that the building was being evacuated,” Feinstein said. “We wanted people to move out quickly and calmly. Some members were told that it was a bomb threat in order to convince them to evacuate more quickly. As people asked, we told them there was a bomb threat.”
Adults using the JCC facilities were told to evacuate.
Police, firefighters and representatives from the county fire marshal’s office responded to the JCC’s call. No device was found, Officer Rebecca Innocenti of the Montgomery County Police Department told mymcmedia.com.
The center reopened at 1:30 p.m., about an hour and a half after receiving the threat.
“My personal take is it’s a statement of where we are in this country,” Feinstein told the New York Times. “There’s some thought amongst some people that hate speech and hate crimes are O.K. and anti-Semitism is O.K., and I think that is reflective of sort of the political discourse that we’ve had in this country.”
He said that this was the first time the Rockville JCC had received a bomb threat.
JCCs in Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Delaware and New Jersey received calls, either from a live caller or from a robocall.
Several Jewish institutions also received bomb threats last week, as did Jewish institutions in the United Kingdom. No connection between Monday’s threats and the ones last week has been reported.
In the wake of the bomb scares, Jewish community officials and security experts are telling their communities not to panic, but to prepare for future disruptions.
“It’s important for the Jewish community to remain calm and have confidence that Jewish institutions reacted with proper protocol,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington
Halber said he feels the region’s Jewish institutions are well prepared for bomb threats, active shooter situation or any other potential danger that may be directed at them.
While there have been a number of well-publicized hate incidents in the area, such as swastikas and other racist graffiti in Montgomery County schools and racist vandalism at a church, he declined to assign a political motive to Monday’s bomb threat.
“There’s always been a large amount of vitriolic hate in American society,” he said. Unfortunately the election has given voice to these periphery of voices to become mainstream. I am not saying that this call had anything to do with the election. We will find out once the perpetrators or perpetrator is caught.”
The challenge for Jewish institutions, Halber said, is to remain open to the community while simultaneously providing adequate safety.
Michael Greenberger, the director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland’s law school, said the reality of working at a Jewish institution today is that security threats are a “way of life” and that security is always a worthy investment even if it’s expensive.
“If I were running a Jewish community center in the city, I would hire a consultant to go from A to Z on security facilities,” he said. “Think of the expense of having somebody come in and wreaking havoc.”
Goldenberg, of Secure Community Network, said he expects more threats and attacks on religious institutions to take place this year.
“In the last 16 months we’ve seen an increase in harassment, intimidation, and as a direct result of some of the rhetoric and usage by extremists of social media,” he said. “It’s easy to tie this into the election. I think that the current situation in the U.S. and abroad has allowed for some extremists to have a methodology.”
In the case of a bomb threat, agencies should call local first responders immediately, Goldenberg said, noting that live calls indicate a more acute risk than robocalls.
“If they’re taking the time to call, if it’s a live person, the concern rises,” he said.
At press time, a Wednesday conference call was scheduled. Officials from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security were to speak with Jewish communal leaders around the country to discuss Monday’s incidents and how to craft protocols to handle such them in the future. Some communities already receive federal grants to provide for security.
Over the past two years, Jewish federations in major urban areas have hired coordinators — mostly former federal law enforcement officials — to ensure that local Jewish institutions are secure and prepared for threats. More than 20 such security coordinators have been hired.
Brenda Moxley, director of community security for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, was hired last year after serving as assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s criminal branch in Miami. She ensures that more than 120 area Jewish institutions are prepared for incidents such as Monday’s, in addition to being in touch with law enforcement officials.
Moxley said the need for such procedure first arose in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, and that Jewish institutions are now beginning to be proactive in responding to threats.
“Every day, it’s important to be vigilant,” she said. “It’s not about being paranoid; it’s just about being prepared.”
JTA News and Features contributed to this story