FBI and Homeland Security Step in After Jewish Centers Hit With 16 Bomb Threats in Single Day

Security representatives to hold conference with U.S. Jewish leaders after 16 Jewish community centers across East Coast received bomb threats. 'That is our new reality,' Jewish official says.

A complex in Wilmington, Del., housing four Jewish organizations was evacuated after receiving a bomb threat.
A complex in Wilmington, Del., housing four Jewish organizations was evacuated after receiving a bomb threat. Courtesy of Siegel JCC in Wilmington/JTA

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security will be assisting local Jewish community centers in bolstering security after 16 JCCs received bomb threats on the same day.

On Wednesday, officials from the FBI and Homeland Security will conduct a conference call with U.S. Jewish communal leaders to discuss Monday’s incidents, what they stem from and how to craft protocols to handle such incidents in the future. Some communities already receive federal grants to provide for security.

The bomb threats, none of which appear credible, hit JCCs up and down the East Coast, prompting evacuations of buildings and campuses. According to Jewish communal security officials, the bomb threats came both from robocalls and from live telephone calls. It remains unclear whether one person or group was behind all the threats.

Several Jewish institutions also received bomb threats last week, as did Jewish institutions in the United Kingdom.

The day after the bomb scare, Jewish communities were trying to get back to normal.

Barry Ables, an official with JCC Columbia, told Haaretz  that they still have no new information about the investigation.

"Im going to be talking to the local FBI contact soon, there is a lot of emailing going back and forth between the JCCs about how to be better prepared for these things in the future, and there would also be an opportunity for us to compare notes. We have policies in place, and we learn from every incident."

"We are letting people know that we have been down for a little down but we wont be down for good." Ables adds that he han not been contacted by Homeland security yet, although he supposes he might be in the future. 

The JCC has also received emotional support from the community, among then the organization, "interfaith partners," that represents Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, Lutherans, pagans and others in South Carolina. "We had an outpouring of concern and support. They are offering emotional support and solidarity," said Ables.

The simultaneous threats were unprecedented, according to Paul Goldenberg, the director of the Secure Community Network, a group affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America that coordinates security for the Jewish community.

“We’re in a completely different world now than we were a couple years ago,” Goldenberg told JTA. “What is unprecedented is in the shortest period of time we received a substantial number of bomb threats. These offenders are leveraging technology to intimidate and/or terrorize communities.”

The FBI is investigating the bomb scares, according to Goldenberg.

Mark Freedman, the Executive Director or the Jewish Federation in Nashville and Middle Tennessee, told Haaretz that, "The local officials led by the FBI are trying to determine the source of this. We hope they will be able to apprehend these telephone terrorists and have them punished for disrupting the activities of the Jewish community and expose them for what they are, which is a gang of anti-Semites."

Freedman added that the receptionist was the one who received the call, which has been passed to the authorities. "The voice was disguised, and they said we are going to blow you all up, something like that."

One of the threatened communities, in Wilmington, Delaware, received a bomb threat at 11:45 A.M. Monday and evacuated some 200 people from a complex housing four Jewish organizations. Everyone from preschoolers at a Jewish day school to senior citizens eating lunch left the building within a few minutes. They returned about 90 minutes later.

Seth Katzen, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Delaware, said communal officials were in touch with local FBI and police, who responded immediately, and that the evacuation was completed without panic.

“There was a scare, but a manageable uneasiness,” he told JTA. “Everyone moved extremely well. It was to create panic and inconvenience, which it did. That is our new reality.”

Neither Goldenberg nor the Anti-Defamation League explicitly tied the bomb threats to the rise of anti-Semitic attacks during and after the 2016 presidential campaign. Goldenberg said making such a link may be tempting, but would be premature given that the offender has not been identified.

The New York Police Department, as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center, have released reports of a rise in hate crimes following the election. Goldenberg expects more attacks on religious institutions to take place in 2017.

“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,” Goldenberg 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.”

Over the past two years, Jewish federations in major urban areas have hired coordinators — mostly former federal law enforcement officials — to ensure that all local Jewish institutions are secure and prepared to face 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 following 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 told JTA. “It’s not about being paranoid; it’s just about being prepared.”

Others point out that Jewish institutions began “hardening” their security after the 1999 attack on the North Valley Jewish Community Center near Los Angeles, when a white supremacist opened fire in the JCC lobby and wounded five people.

In April 2014, a 73-year-old neo-Nazi opened fire at the  Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City, Kansas, and Village Shalom, a nearby Jewish retirement community, killing three people.