It happened just after 1 p.m. on Monday, January 9.
I vividly remember receiving that early afternoon text message that our JCC, the Kaplan JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, had just been evacuated. There had been a bomb threat.
Within moments, my wife called to make sure I had heard the news and to express her concern. Fortunately, about an hour later, we received another text confirming that “the police had completed a thorough sweep of the JCC and have deemed the threat not credible and the building safe.” The JCC was reopened.
By then, though, we had learned that what happened in Tenafly was part of a coordinated series of threats on that day against Jewish community centers across North America. And these bomb threats have been repeated in subsequent waves against JCCs on January 18, 31 (including in Tenafly again,) February 20, and 27. According to the JCC Association, approximately 80 threats have targeted more than 60 JCCs in these past five weeks. No motive has yet been determined, and no one has claimed responsibility; nor has any group.
These recent events are not limited to JCCs. Witness the substantial vandalism at Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia this past week. The rising BDS movement across college campuses continues to manifest itself as anti-Semitism. During these recent weeks, other Jewish institutions, including schools, also have been targeted.
By all accounts, we are experiencing a dramatic rise in hate crimes and anti-Semitic incidents across North America. According to the Anti-Defamation League, “threats themselves are alarming, disruptive and must always be taken seriously.”
This has hit close to home — close to all of our homes — and we need to come together to address this growing threat. Our religious and communal institutions — synagogues, schools, organizations, camps, and campuses — all must be proactive and vigilant. We know the recent series of threats likely will generate considerable financial costs and will consume organizational resources.
In Bergen County, we should be grateful for the work of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. Its Kehillah Cooperative recently conducted a well-attended security symposium with local law enforcement and national security experts, who provided updated information, guidance, and practical tips. The Kehillah Cooperative also has helped our local organizations, including my synagogue, secure grants from the Department of Homeland Security.
More broadly, the Jewish Federations of North America has made its security partner, Secure Community Network, available to advise national organizations and local communities on emergency plans, policies, and procedures for every institution. For example, my work at Foundation for Jewish Camp has benefited from SCN’s guidance and resources, which we have shared with more than 200 overnight and day camps across North America. While we have taken steps to provide relevant and helpful information and to encourage preparedness for our field, in light of the current operating environment, we all need to do more.
There are three concrete steps we can take to address this growing concern.
First, when it comes to emergency preparedness, everyone plays a role. At a minimum, we need to provide eyes and ears for local law enforcement. We all must follow the dictate “see something, say something.” If something or someone seems out of place, we need to bring this to the attention of appropriate officials. We each can help identify suspicious activity and report unusual behavior. Don’t assume someone else has already done so. Prompt reporting to local officials can help prevent future violence.
Second, each of our Jewish communal institutions must be proactive in its preparedness planning. We are following guidance from SCN to make sure agencies continuously assess current plans and practices, develop protocols and procedures, designate responsibilities, and enhance awareness through ongoing training. Local law enforcement officials must be engaged constantly as partners in this process.
Finally, we must take a lesson from our Israeli brethren. I always have marveled at how, in the face of ongoing terrorists’ threats, Israelis continue to live each day to the fullest. Despite the challenges posed by these recent threats targeting our local community, we must continue to live our lives. We have to keep showing up. We can’t let these threats win by changing our lives. Our homes and our institutions must remain open, welcoming, and inclusive of everyone.
Yes, we should keep our eyes open and increase our sensitivities and awareness. But all of us should keep participating, attending, and coming together as a united community.
On that cold Monday evening in January, I went to work out at my JCC. My wife said to be careful, and I was (including by not overextending myself on the treadmill and bench press!). In no way did I want the threats from earlier that day — or in any of the subsequent days — to change my life.