Jewish Centers on High Alert Amid Bomb Threats

Children were back to enjoying arts and crafts, after two recent bomb threats against the Westside Jewish Community Center. Photo: Allison B. Cohen.

Children were back to enjoying arts and crafts, after two recent bomb threats against the Westside Jewish Community Center. Photo: Allison B. Cohen.

In these early months of 2017, local Jewish community centers—including the Westside Jewish Community Center and the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center—have been operating on heightened alert and dealing with a new normal as a surfeit of bomb threats targeting centers and other Jewish institutions have proliferated nationwide and in Canada.

According to the news data outlet ProPublica, between January 1st and March 15th, 145 threats have been made to the nation’s 104 Jewish institutions, including community centers and Anti-Defamation League (ADL) offices.

None of these bomb threats have escalated into attacks but they have been alarming enough to move members of the U.S. Senate to call for swift action from the Trump administration to address this recent wave of psychological terrorism.

While the Silver Lake center was not among those targeted in these hoax threats, the Westside JCC’s (WJCC) preschool did receive a threatening call February 27th, followed by another bomb threat March 8th, according to WJCC Executive Director Brian Greene.

Founded in 1954, the nonprofit Westside Jewish Community Center has been a reliable mid-city institution for at least six generations of Angelenos with its font of educational, cultural and athletic programming for Jews and non-Jews alike of all ages.

Greene, who has worked in his position since 2004, said this was the first time in the community center’s six-decade history that it has been targeted on this level.

“In my years at WJCC, there has never been an anti-Semitic incident,” Greene said. “’These threats, even though they have all turned out to be hoaxes, have been a shock to all of us.”

According to Greene, police arrived at the center immediately after the March 8th threat, and within an hour, had evacuated the building and then checked and cleared the facility, allowing center activities—including preschool class, Maccabi Games tryouts and senior citizen programming—to resume.

In the aftermath of that incident, Greene said in a statement, “Today, when the threat came in, our staff responded quickly and efficiently, following our emergency procedures. … We are proud of the compassion that [police] showed to all of the individuals on site, including preschoolers and high school students. Everyone was kept safe.”

Some link this latest wave of anti-Semitism to the alt-right’s embracement of President Donald Trump in the aftermath of last November’s election, despite statements from the Trump administration denouncing the hate crimes.

For Angeleno Jews, this year’s threats have proved a particularly chilling reminder of a notorious 1999 incident at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills that made worldwide news when a shooter, identified as a neo-Nazi, wounded five people—including children—and went on a rampage that left a mail carrier dead.

According to a Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles article published in late January, the Los Angeles area’s four Jewish community centers—which includes the Granada Hills location (now called Valley Jewish Community Center) and another in West Hills—had already been examining security procedures following bomb threats at the start of the year targeting Jewish community centers nationwide, including facilities in Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, Delaware, Maryland and a pair in the Bay Area.

Ayana Morse, director of the Silver Lake center—who could not be reached by press time—had already scheduled a meeting with a Los Angeles Police Dept. (LAPD) officer to discuss security.

“We used it as an opportunity to review internal procedures and took that as our priority takeaway,” Morse told the Jewish Journal in January. “Our whole professional staff went through emergency procedures to make sure everyone felt comfortable and clear on how to respond in the event of anything happening.”

Since the outbreak of incidents nationwide, the LAPD has been bracing itself for the potential of such local threats as the pair of calls made to the Westside JCC.

“We take every threat seriously,” said LAPD spokesperson Officer Tony Im. “We conduct a thorough investigation whether they’re credible or not. … Fortunately, these were hoaxes and not real.”

Even prior to the Los Angeles incidents, local law enforcement held a security-training seminar in early February with the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security’s Office for Bombing Prevention at Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge.

Since the threats began, the FBI has been actively investigating the incidents, which have been coming in waves.

In a statement, the FBI said it is working with the Dept. of Justice Civil Rights Division in investigating possible civil rights violations in connection with threats to Jewish Community Centers across the country.

“The FBI will collect all available facts and evidence and will ensure this matter is investigated in a fair, thorough, and impartial manner,” the statement read.

So far, one arrest has been made in connection with the nationwide bomb threats.

In March, federal authorities arrested 31-year-old Juan Thompson, a suspect allegedly behind the harassment of at least eight Jewish community centers in St. Louis, Missouri; and another suspect of dual Israel-American citizenship believed tied to threats against JCCs in the United States and Canada.

In addition to this year’s myriad JCC threats, another wave of anti-Semitism has included the desecration of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis; Rochester, New York; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

On February 22nd, Vice President Mike Pence condemned the nationwide vandalism from the St. Louis cemetery site.

“There is no place in America for hatred or acts of prejudice or violence or anti-Semitism,” Pence said.

Locally, life continues as normal with the hopes that such incidents will not be taken any further.

“We are very grateful for the help and cooperation of our local law enforcement agencies,” the Westside JCC’s Greene said. “Our JCC is closely monitoring the situation and coordinating with local law enforcement, the Dept. of Homeland Security and the FBI, as well as the Community Security Initiative of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.”

Security and safety remains the WJCC’s top priority.

“At the same time, we will not be bullied by terrorism,” Greene said. “We stand tall with other JCCs around the country and continue to be a gathering place for our community.”

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