NEW YORK — When the bomb threat was called in to the Los Angeles Westside Jewish Community Center last Monday, staff were prepared and quickly launched emergency evacuation procedures.
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Because about 115 bomb threats had been called into JCCs and other Jewish institutions since the beginning of the year, “we’ve talked about it repeatedly at staff meetings,” says Brian Greene, executive director of the Westside JCC, in Los Angeles' old Fairfax neighborhood. “Everyone knew what to do if it happened, and it happened.”
Within minutes of the 4:30 P.M. phone call – placed by a person whose voice was so digitally altered that those listening couldn’t tell whether it was a man or a woman – more than 400 people in the building were evacuated. They included preschoolers, elementary- and high-school kids taking swim lessons and playing basket ball, senior citizens and other participants in the panoply of programs the JCC offers.
On the same day another fake threat was called into the JCC in Irvine, California; some 1,000 people were evacuated.
There are 160 such centers in North America, says David Posner, vice president for strategic performance at the Jewish Community Centers Association. More than half, 81, have received bomb threats since January, along with day schools, a Jewish museum and the Anti-Defamation League’s Manhattan headquarters. The most recent one occured Tuesday morning in Rochester, NY.
Authorities arrested a St. Louis man suspected of making eight such calls, but the FBI has not identified to date anyone else behind the phone-call hoaxes or anti-Semitic incidents, ranging from swastika graffiti to cemetery desecrations. Now the American Jewish community is kicking its response up a notch.
In 2004 a nonprofit called Secure Community Network was created by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Last week SCN launched a national security advisory council, chaired by Alejandro Mayorkas, a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Its goal: to strengthen ties between SCN and local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in their dealings with the U.S. Jewish community.
In a related move, Jewish communal leaders – including JFNA CEO Jerry Silverman, SCN director Paul Goldenberg and Posner of the JCCA – met on March 3 with FBI Director James Comey.
“Representatives of the Jewish community left with the highest confidence that the FBI is taking every possible measure to resolve the matter as quickly as possible,” said a statement issued afterward.
“This is a difficult case because of the technology,” the JCCA’s Posner said in an interview, about the telephone hoaxes. “Anything you can do with a computer you can do with a digitized phone system,” which is why those making the calls succeed in masking their voices and avoiding identification.
The American Jewish “community has had a very, very challenging two months,” said SCN’s Goldenberg.
Between January 1 and February 20, the SCN reported last week, there were 176 anti-Semitic hate incidents in 37 states – i.e., assaults, bomb threats, cyberattacks, vandalism and cemetery desecration. Many more incidents have since been added to that tally.
Goldenberg and SCN are currently focused on helping Jewish institutions ramp up their security protocols – for example, by improving communications systems so if someone notices something suspicious, like a person taking photos of a building, senior staff at other local Jewish institutions can be notified immediately via text or phone alerts.
While Jewish groups have taken security seriously since 9/11, more funding is being earmarked for this cause than ever before, in some cases, sources report.
A higher proportion of his synagogue’s budget is spent on security than in the past, confirms Steve Rabinowitz, a vice president of Washington, D.C.’s Congregation Adas Israel.
“The shul spends a great deal of money,” he said, to cover uniformed and plainclothes security officers, security cameras and other precautions.
Such activities started a while ago, “even before we had a Trump grandkid in the preschool,” adds Rabinowitz, referring to one of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s children. “It’s easy to say ‘err on the side of safety,’ but how do you know how much is enough? It’s money that could be spent on Jewish education. Those are tough decisions to make.”
According to Brenda Moxley, director of community security for the Miami-area Jewish community, “It’s a changing paradigm: Since 9/11 people in the community and the field of security in general have shifted to being more proactive rather than reactive.”
Moxley’s area includes 120 different organizations from day schools to JCCs to synagogues. Before being hired by the local Federation to launch her security office, Moxley was assistant special agent in charge of criminal investigations for the FBI’s Miami division.
'The same tropes'
Other minority groups are now looking to the U.S. Jewish community as a paradigm of success when it comes to handling security threats.
“There's no doubt the Jewish community is the best organized,” says SCN’s Goldenberg, who has recently advised black Christian congregations as well as Muslim and Sikh and Catholic groups.
The wave of anti-religious activities in North America has not spared other faiths, as illustrated by the January murder of six at a Quebec mosque, and recent arson attacks at three U.S. mosques.
White supremacists “use the same tropes” against all of us, says Salam al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which began consulting with Goldenberg seven or eight years ago, when he was vice chair of the Homeland Security Department's Faith-based Communications and Security Advisory Committee.
“Right after the elections in November, mosques in California received threatening letters and he immediately sent [guidelines for] processes to deal with these threats to the Muslim community," said al-Marayati.
Specifically, Goldenberg advised the mosques to create security committees, deploy guards and develop other policies and procedures. The information, says al-Marayati, was sent to roughly 2,100 U.S. mosques “and was of vital importance for our security.”
Political officials and faith leaders from other communities have recently showed support to Jewish institutions which have been under threat, with press conferences, letters, phone calls and personal visits.
On February 23, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo described a “recent explosion of anti-Semitism and hate crimes,” and announced a $25-million programs to fund security training and materials for institutions at risk.
However, Jewish communal leaders say more government funding is needed. Maury Litwack, director of Teach NYS (an advocacy group run by the Orthodox Union), lobbies for support and funding of yeshivas and day schools in New York State, in which some 150,000 pupils study, he says; some of the funds must cover security expenses.
Last year the state spent close to $11 million on “I Love NY” signs, Litwack told Haaretz. “That’s twice the amount spent on security for non-public school students [in 2016]." Slowly, federal, state and local governments are stepping up to address security issues, he added, because “they are realizing that it’s a public responsibility.”
Last year, the City of New York began funding a program to provide security guards for private schools at risk of terror attacks, he noted, and the New York and Pennsylvania state governments began funding similar schemes as early as 2013.
More security directors
Meanwhile, Jewish institutions aren't waiting for help and a growing number are hiring security directors like Moxley, in Miami. There are now 22 such officials around the country, says Goldenberg, and SCN is now hiring another six.
Training and education, and general awareness, are vital when it comes to security, says Moxley, adding, "People might think security is just getting more guards but it’s about having a plan.”
It was just that type of plan that allowed Los Angeles' Westside JCC to be safely evacuated last week.
As soon as the JCC receptionist who got the call realized what it was about, she called over a security guard, and together they listened on speakerphone. They tried in vain to get details from the caller, who declared that there was a bomb somewhere in the building.
When the call ended, the receptionist and security guard ran to inform director Greene; they called the police and then set in motion their evacuation plan, which was smoothly executed. About three hours later the building was declared safe; the next morning it opened for business as usual.
Greene says a bomb threat sparks deep emotional reactions: “This is harassment, this is intimidation, this is a hate crime. I felt personally attacked. No matter how much the rational self says there were 116 of these before and so this too is probably not real – at the time of the threat you feel like it really could be a bomb. Everything inside you is operating on adrenaline and fear."
But there was also an upside, he adds.
“There has been wonderful outreach from city and state leadership; we had a lovely call the next morning from a representative of the local Islamic community. The city attorney came this morning to say hello to parents as they arrived at school, just to show support. That’s been inspiring," says Greene, "something I wasn’t really expecting.”