Third wave of bomb threats hits JCCs

Bender JCC bomb
Police respond to the Jan. 9 bomb threat at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington in Rockville. The building was safely evacuated and no bomb was found. At least 13 JCCs received bomb threats on Tuesday. Photo by David Holzel.

At least 17 Jewish community centers across the United States were targeted with bomb threats on Tuesday in the third wave of such mass disruption in 2017, which had included the JCC in Rockville on Jan. 9.

Threats were called into JCCs in Albany, N.Y.; West Orange, N.J., and Boulder, Colo. There were additional media reports of threats in Milwaukee, San Diego and Salt Lake City. Tuesday’s threats add more questions to what the FBI is investigating as a hate crime. They also make more urgent the Jewish community’s need, not only to secure JCCs, day schools, synagogues and other communal buildings, but to provide enough information to calm the jitters of community members.

On Jan. 9, bomb threats were called into 16 JCCs across the Northwest and South, forcing the evacuation of hundreds. The Park Heights JCC in Baltimore received bomb threats on both dates. Then, on Jan. 18, some 30 Jewish institutions in at least 17 states received bomb threats.

No explosive devices were found.

The FBI has found no connection to terrorism, John Adams, assistant director of the FBI’s directorate of intelligence, said in a conference call with professionals of Jewish institutions on Jan. 25. The call was organized by the ADL.

Adams declined to comment further on the investigation because it is ongoing.

But the FBI speakers did offer advice for being better prepared in an emergency.

Kerry Sleeper, assistant director of the FBI’s office of partner engagement, said that institutions should share information, but not on social media or in any forums that would “empower the bad guys to make more of these calls.”

“What we are attempting to say is if you have adequate security precautions, if you have policies in place, if your people are trained to understand that policy and can execute searches, it can significantly mitigate the degree of disruption that a bomb threat places,” he said.

But the reticence of Jewish community officials to be more specific about security protocols in the event of an emergency could have negative side effects, cautioned the national Jewish community’s top security professional.

“I think real time and credible information has become the lifeblood of the American Jewish community,” said Paul Goldenberg, director of Secure Community Network, the group affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America that coordinates security for the Jewish community.

Goldenberg said that because people expect to feel secure, they also expect to be kept in the loop when there is a threat. While he thinks the JCCs handled last month’s threats properly, he fears that some people may not be satisfied.

“My concern is that Jewish institutions will start to see people second-guessing whether they should be attending these institutions,” he said. “We don’t want to start seeing people pull their kids out of these institutions because of these bomb threats.”

The proper response, he said, is to further impress the need for active shooter training, bomb threat drills and other preparations at institutions that have not yet done so. This extends to Jewish businesses, he said.

The bomb threat to the Bender JCC of Greater Washington, in Rockville, forced the evacuation of children and adults into subfreezing weather. Some 200 preschoolers were walked to the nearby lower school of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and some staff members found shelter in the Charles E. Smith Life Communities, adjacent to the JCC campus. Center members received a text that the facility was closing for an emergency.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, the local Jewish community’s information hub, “communicated with its constituent organizations the day when the threat was called into the JCC and to provide them with information with what was going on,” said Executive Director Ron Halber.

Similarly, the Baltimore Jewish Council’s director of security was “fully engaged and communicating to all the stakeholders what was happening,” said Executive Director Howard Libit.

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