NEW YORK — The FBI and Department of Homeland Security is assisting local Jewish community centers in bolstering security after 16 JCCs received bomb threats on the same day.
On Wednesday last week, officials from the FBI and Homeland Security conducted a conference call with U.S. Jewish communal leaders to discuss the Jan. 9 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. Pittsburgh’s community, which recently hired a new director of security, was not targeted.
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 other U.S. Jewish institutions also received bomb threats last week, as did Jewish institutions in the United Kingdom.
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 said. “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.
One of the threatened communities, in Wilmington, Del., 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 said. “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, 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 said.
“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.