On Monday morning, as bomb-sniffing dogs searched for explosives in the hallways and classrooms of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School’s upper school in Rockville, students were holding an assembly and classes for 500 students continued as if it were a normal day.
This was the school’s response to an automated bomb threat phone call — one of more than 20 that occurred at Jewish institutions across the United States that same day, including Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax. All of the threats turned out to be false. The incidents were the fifth wave of bomb threats in less than two months.
Other Jewish day schools in the Washington area were unaffected.
The robocall came in at 9:22 a.m., according to Laurie Ehrlich, the school’s marketing director. The school immediately notified police.
But unlike most institutions that evacuated after a bomb threat was called in, students at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School stayed put, following the protocol set by its security task force.
Emily Nadler, a junior, was confused at first. “I had no idea what was going on,” she told The Lion’s Tale, the school newspaper. “I was, of course, googling other bomb threats and I saw that other schools were evacuating, so I wondered, ‘Why aren’t we evacuating?”
The reason, said Head of School Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, is that the threat was ambiguous.
“Maybe the bomb is outside the building, so moving around is not valuable,” he said. “One reason perpetrators do this is to cause anxiety and panic, and that’s why we don’t evacuate as a default.”
Malkus said the security task force meets quarterly and includes members of the school board, Montgomery County police officers, Jewish Federation of Greater Washington Security Director Brian Johnson and a security expert from the Israeli embassy.
Malkus added that although he appreciates the FBI’s investigation into the threats, he wants “quicker action” to be taken in catching the perpetrator or perpetrators.
The FBI did not respond to emails for this article.
In Fairfax, the bomb threat to Gesher Jewish Day School came in at 9:19 a.m. The school notified the Fairfax County Police Department and evacuated the 200 people in the building, said Head of School Dan Finkel.
“While the students and faculty were at a safe distance law enforcement swept the building to make sure it was safe,” he said.
Both schools were given the all clear by 10:40 a.m.
Finkel said his school quickly resumed its normal day after the evacuation, although faculty did have conversations with students to relieve any lingering anxiety.
He wanted the perpetrator to know that because the school experienced minimal disruption, “this kind of scare tactic doesn’t work.”
But Finkel has mixed emotions.
“Once I got over the initial shock of this happening, I’m frustrated and angry that this is something our students have to deal with,” he said.
Some 60 JCCs and Jewish schools have received nearly 70 bomb threats since Jan. 9, forcing the evacuation of hundreds from buildings.
In an interview before Monday’s threats, Paul Goldenberg, director of the Secure Community Network, raised the possibility that there may be copycat culprits behind some of the calls.
Goldenberg said the two months of hate crimes that Jewish community institutions have endured represents the “most incidents of anti-Jewish crimes in the shortest period of time not directly related to geo-political events.
“When you cross a threshold and you attack another human being because of their religion in a threatening manner to cause physical harm, that’s behavior that is criminal that rises to a hate crime,” he said. “These people are terrorists.”
This is not normal. In a one month period in no other recent presidential administration have dozens of bomb threats been called into Jewish Day Schools and Community Centers, or hundreds of Jewish gravestones been toppled. No child should fear going to school, nor should any member of the Jewish community fear going to a JCC to swim, work out or socialize.