Jewish centers evacuate after receiving bomb threats

By Eric Berger, Staff writer

After another recent round of bomb threats against Jewish institutions last week, leaders of Jewish organizations and security officials say they must continually work to improve their security.

Some 30 Jewish institutions, including the St. Louis Jewish Community Center, spread across 17 states received threats Jan. 18. This was the second wave of threats made in the last month.

The alerts were false but many of the institutions, including the J buildings in Chesterfield and Creve Coeur, were evacuated and closed for several hours. 

Other facilities that received bomb threats via phone were located in: Miami; Edison, N.J.; Cincinnati, and Alabama. News reports also cited threats in Albany, N.Y.; Nashville; suburban Boston and Detroit; West Hartford, Conn., and the Orlando area.

In response, Jewish community leaders say they will continue to focus on security and prepare for potential future threats.

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“While this was certainly was not a pleasant experience, it reinforces the value in regular safety and emergency drills, of which everyone at the J is a part,” Lynn Wittels, president and CEO of the St. Louis Jewish Community Center, said in a statement.

Wittels told the Light that she could not discuss specifics about any plans for changes in security but said that leaders of community centers around the country are in close contact. 

The FBI and federal Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division are investigating possible civil rights violations in connection with threats against the community centers, according to Rebecca Wu, public affairs specialist for the FBI St. Louis Division. She stated that she could not provide any comment on the status of the investigation. 

Paul Goldenberg, the director of Secure Community Networks — an affiliate of the Jewish Federations of North America — said the goal of such calls is to “disrupt our way of life.” 

People who were exercising at the facility in Creve Coeur were forced to leave the area and people attending its Adult Day Center, as well as children in its child care center, had to be transported to a nearby shelter. 

Mark Freedman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that such calls amounted to “telephone terrorism.”

“They know that community members will respond appropriately and they know that this is a good way to try to make life difficult for the Jewish community,” Goldenberg said. 

On the question of whether to evacuate a facility, Goldenberg said it depends on the advice of local law enforcement. 

“What am I concerned about is alert fatigue. What we don’t want to happen is that because people see these bomb threats coming in, that they may decide to take a different course of action because of fatigue. They have to respond every time pursuant to the advice and counsel of local law enforcement,” Goldenberg said.

While Goldenberg is urging Jewish institutions to continually strengthen security — for example, making security training part of the hiring process — he said the goal is “not to build walls or concertina wire around each of our institutions. We’re not going to do it. We can’t do it.”

He mentioned how in Europe, there are oftentimes armed guards standing in front of synagogues.

“The goal is to build a culture of security at each institution but at the same time, keep them open for business and welcoming,” he said. Jewish Federation of St. Louis — and related organizations — have done a “very effective job really pushing out the security culture.”

He told JTA that he had no information as to the perpetrator, but mentioned 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, Mont., that was planned and then canceled. “In some cases, leaving very specific threats against Jewish communities — bombing threats, harassment,” Goldenberg added.

Karen Aroesty, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois, said that “there has been a marked rise in very antagonist, aggressive behavior since the election.”

“These threats, whether or not they result in actual evidence of an incendiary device or something else that could cause actual harm, the anxiety is real and perhaps as a community, we need to come together more often and increase our sense of strength and identity together,” Aroesty said.  “That would be a positive impact from this.”