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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2019 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


January 13, 2017  RSS feed

Text: T T T

Local, multi-state bomb threats prompt FBI to coordinate with JCCs for ‘new reality’

JTA news service and Jewish Press staff

Police outside a Jewish Community Center in Miami Beach. 
Screenshot from Twitter Police outside a Jewish Community Center in Miami Beach. Screenshot from Twitter The FBI and Department of Homeland Security will be assisting local Jewish community centers in bolstering security after 16 JCCs, including one in Tampa, received threats on Monday, Jan. 9.

Jewish institutions in Tampa and Orlando also received threats the week before that forced the evacuations of various facilities.

The simultaneous threats Jan. 9 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 of years ago,” Goldenberg told JTA. “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.

On Wednesday, Jan. 11, officials from the FBI and Homeland Security conducted a conference call with U.S. Jewish communal leaders to discuss the rash of incidents on Monday, Jan. 9.

Federal officials will look into what the bomb threat calls stem from and how to craft protocols to handle such incidents in the future. Also, the Florida office of the Anti- Defamation League (ADL) issued an advisory listing programs that offer advice on how to respond to threats and what security measures to take in advance of threats.

The Tampa JCCs and Federation, as well as some other local Jewish institutions, have received federal grants to upgrade security.

The bomb threats, none of which appear credible, hit JCCs up and down the East Coast, prompting evacuations of buildings and campuses.

The Florida ADL office said the Monday, Jan. 9 threats included the Tampa JCCs & Federation, Galbut Family Jewish Community Center in Miami Beach, Dave and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center in Kendall, Jewish Community Alliance in Jacksonville and Roth Family Jewish Community Center of Greater Orlando. All of those facilities were evacuated as the threats were checked out.

Jewish institutions in other states receiving threats included Tennessee, Maryland, South Carolina, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, Georgia and New Jersey, the Florida ADL reported.

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.

In Tampa, police said officers responding to the bomb threat at the JCC’s preschool at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, were alerted to an unusual ticking sound inside a closed piece of furniture, but it turned out to be a child’s noisy toy.

Tampa Police Chief Eric Ward met with JCC officials after the Jan. 9 bomb threat.

“We don’t ordinarily comment on security issues,” said Heidi Shimberg, chief operating officer of the Tampa Federation’s JCCs, but noted that Chief Ward told JCC officials that “This is not just a Jewish problem. These types of threats aren’t credible and happen against all types of other organizations ... often made by teenagers ... In his 25-plus years on the force, including time on SWAT, there were a large number of threats in Tampa, but never an actual bomb.”

The spate of threats began on Wednesday, Jan. 4 when calls were made to the Jewish Academy of Orlando in Maitland, which shares a campus with the Roth Family Jewish Community Center and the Holocaust Resource and Educational Center, and the Chabad Jewish Center of South Orlando.

The next day the Tampa JCCs & Federation received threats to both of its preschools, one at the Maureen and Douglas Cohn Campus in Citrus Park and the other at Rodeph Sholom in south Tampa.

Gary Gould, CEO of the Tampa JCCs and Federation, sent out an email alert to Jewish community members on Jan. 5, noting the preschools “were evacuated in an orderly manner.”

Some Jewish institutions in the United Kingdom were also threatened the same week that the Tampa and Orlando institutions were first targeted.

ADL Florida Regional Director Hava L. Holzhauer issued the following statement after the Jan. 9 threats: “It is disheartening to begin 2017 with hate being called into Jewish institutions. Make no mistake, these are terror acts intended to intimidate and disrupt the everyday lives of Jewish members of the community.”

Neither Goldenberg nor the ADL 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.

“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.”

Goldenberg expects more attacks on religious institutions to take place in 2017.

While calling the breadth of threats made in one day, “inconceivable,” David Posner, vice president for strategic performance at JCC Association of North America, wrote in a JTA oped, “Unfortunately, all Americans and faith-based groups, not just Jewish organizations, recognize that this is our reality – that today, any public space or gathering may be a target.”

Over the past two years, Jewish federations in major urban areas have hired coordinators – mostly former federal law enforcement officials – to ensure 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 Miami FBI’s criminal branch. She ensures that more than 120 area Jewish institutions are prepared for incidents such as Monday’s, in addition to being in touch with law enforcement officials.

Moxley said the need for such procedures 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 told JTA. “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 JCC 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 JCC of Greater Kansas City, KS, and Village Shalom, a nearby Jewish retirement community, killing three people.

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