WASHINGTON (JTA) – At least 32 Jewish community centres in 16 U.S. states have received bomb threats, Jewish security officials said, in the second wave of such mass disruption in two weeks.
Paul Goldenberg, the director of Secure Community Networks – an affiliate of Jewish Federations of North America, which advises Jewish groups and institutions on security – said the threats were called in Wednesday to JCCs. Media reported additional threats called into schools and other Jewish institutions.
There were threats in, among other places, Miami Beach; Edison and Scotch Plains, New Jersey; Cincinnati; Alabama; Albany and Syracuse, New York; Nashville; suburban Boston and Detroit; West Hartford and Woodbridge, Connecticut; suburban Minneapolis, and the Orlando area.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) listed threats in 16 states: New York, Ohio, New Jersey, Florida, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Delaware, Connecticut, Alabama, Maine, California, Tennessee, South Carolina, Missouri, Minnesota and Texas. All the alerts were false.
Whether the community centres evacuated depended on the practices of local law enforcement, Goldenberg said.
“It’s the second salvo in 10 days, we’re asking people to ensure they stay in contact with local law enforcement,” he said.
On Jan. 9, bomb threats were called into 16 institutions across the Northeast and South, forcing the evacuation of hundreds.
In many cases Wednesday the callers were live, Goldenberg said, as opposed to the previous threat, when calls were recorded. He said the caller in most cases was a woman, who kept the call brief: leveling the threat and then hanging up.
In some cases, calls to communities near one another came within minutes. News 10 in upstate New York reported that a call came into the Albany just a minute after a similar threat was called into the JCC in the Town of DeWitt, near Syracuse, about a two-hour drive from Albany.
Goldenberg said his organization was consulting with federal authorities, including the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. He said there was no information as to the perpetrator, but noted an increase in social media threats, particularly from the far right.
“The neo-Nazi or white supremacist hate groups seem to be becoming much more vocal,” he said. “Their threats are much more specific, in some cases they’re calling for armed marches,” citing as an example a march in Whitefish, Montana, that was planned and then canceled. “In some cases, leaving very specific threats against Jewish communities – bombing threats, harassment.”
Operations at the Gordon JCC in Nashville returned to normal approximately an hour after a receptionist received a call stating that there was a bomb in the building, said Mark Freedman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee. The threat was delivered in a woman’s voice, but it was unclear whether the call was live or recorded, he told JTA.
Freedman said the community, which was targeted in last week’s series of threats, would not be intimidated by the incidents, which he termed “telephone terrorism.”
“These people, whoever they are, that are making these threats are trying to intimidate, create anxiety and fear, and we are going to do what we have to do to ensure the safety and security of our valued members and constituents, but we are not going to give in to what they are trying to create, which is to drive us away from our valued institutions,” he said.
“Clearly it’s a pattern of intimidation, and it’s likely to continue in the current atmosphere that we have in this country, where hate groups feel that they can come after good-standing members of the community.”
The bomb threats Wednesday are the latest incident in a recent wave of increased anti-Semitism in the U.S. The Anti-Defamation League documented rising anti-Semitic abuse on Twitter last year, as well as a spike in hate crimes following the presidential election.
Elise Jarvis, associate director for communal security at the ADL, said she anticipates more incidents like this in the future.
“These things often come in cycles,” she told JTA on Wednesday. “All these things, when you bring them together, it paints an intense picture.”
Goldenberg also described an intensity of threats.
“We have seen in the last several weeks an uptick in activities and threats to Jewish institutions across the United States,” he said. “There has been a tremendous amount of rhetoric out there.”
Jarvis said institutions need more training in how to deal with bomb threats, including which questions to ask the caller – where the bomb is, for example – and how to handle other threats like suspicious mail. If staff are aware of security procedures, she said, being prepared doesn’t have to be costly.
“We need to be providing a lot more training, specifically on how to respond to bomb threats,” Jarvis said. “The longer you can keep someone on the phone, the better.”
Carol Brick-Turin, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Miami Beach, said training and preparation led to a smooth evacuation of the JCC there.
“The JCC staff was very well prepared, there was coordination between JCC staff, law enforcement and the federation, and it was handled correctly and they communicated appropriately,” she told JTA. “We all know how important it is to remain vigilant 24/7/365.”
News reports across the country described similar scenes. Preschoolers being evacuated in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, and West Hartford; sniffer dogs in Scotch Plains and Maitland, Florida, near Orlando.
Stephen Posner, the JCC Association of North America’s director of strategic performance, said “best practices” were on display across the country on Wednesday.
“While we’re extremely proud of our JCCs for professionally handling yet another threatening situation, we are concerned about the anti-Semitism behind these threats,” he said in a statement. “While the bombs in question are hoaxes, the calls are not.”
Secure Community Networks held a conference call later in the week of the Jan. 9 threats with top FBI and Homeland Security officials for over a thousand callers from Jewish groups across the country.