Despite some withdrawals, most remain at JCCs and schools here and nationwide
When Cincinnati’s Mayerson Jewish Community Center was hit with a bomb threat on Jan. 18, Adam Bellows was satisfied with how the staff handled the preschool kids, including his 2-year-old son.
The kids, said Bellows, had no idea the threat had happened. They were evacuated and taken to a secure location where they watched cartoons.
But after he got home, Bellow’s son started having a tough time. He couldn’t sleep and was scared to return to preschool the next day.
“It was hard to see how much it disturbed him,” Bellows said. “He wasn’t scared at the time or anything, but the next day he was saying, ‘I don’t want to go to the JCC.’ He kept asking, ‘Are we going to watch Mickey Mouse again? Is Mommy going to come pick me up again?’ His world was interrupted.”
More than 100 bomb threats have targeted JCCs, day schools and other Jewish institutions, including Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills, the JCC in West Bloomfield and the Ann Arbor Hebrew Day School. The threats have come in seven waves since the beginning of the year.
On March 7, more than a dozen locations were targeted, including JCCs, schools and offices of the Anti-Defamation League. And on Sunday, during Purim celebrations, another seven JCCs were threatened, some for the second time in a week.
While many JCCs report that members and preschoolers are staying put, there have been some exceptions. The Roth Family JCC near Orlando has seen 50 children pull out, according to reports JTA has confirmed with a source who has knowledge of the matter. In Birmingham, Ala., where the JCC has been targeted four separate times, six families have withdrawn their children.
“We have had a couple of withdrawals from our early childhood center,” said Brian Siegel, CEO of the Metro Detroit JCC, which had a threat Jan. 18. “We have had many more people who have said this is the best time to support the JCC and that they won’t be deterred by this form of terrorism.”
That attitude is echoed by parents who spoke to JTA. As in Detroit, they were happy with how the centers have handled the threats. The kids returned promptly to their programs, and business went on as usual — without any children expressing any fear.
“No one brought it up, including parents of prospective students,” said Steve Freedman, head of school at Hillel Day School here, which was threatened Feb. 1. “They were appreciative of how we handled things. Life goes on. It’s important to keep things in perspective.”
And yet, despite appeals from JCCs for calm and defiance, the repeated bomb threats have taken their toll. The Orlando JCC is holding an online fundraiser called “#ThenNowAndAlways,” whose donor pitch says that, in light of “challenges greater than we expected,” this year “it will take significant effort just for us to break even.”
Siegel says Detroit’s JCC has not suffered financially because of the bomb threat. He also said, “We are not experiencing less traffic, but we worry that misinformation about the nature of the risk might lead some parents to not sign up for programs.
“The telephone terrorists’ intention is to create fear. This is how they ‘win.’ It’s impossible for us to say there is no risk, and we treat each incident as serious as nails,” he said. “At the same time, heightening fear unintentionally helps them do their job, which none of us want to be complicit in.
“I would argue that the JCC is as safe or safer than any other institution that provides services to children and families. Our heightened attention to security probably makes us safer than comparable institutions outside the community.”
Heidi Budaj, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League Michigan Region, said, “Because our community is feeling vulnerable due to these threats locally and nationally, we’ve increased our already close ties with law enforcement at local, state and federal levels. They are taking the threats very seriously and assisting our community in security measures and by throwing the entire weight of their departments into investigating these cases.
“That should bring some measure of comfort to our community,” she said.
An open letter to President Donald Trump, signed by all 100 U.S. senators, urged specific action on anti-Semitism and alluded to the fiscal pressure on JCCs.
“We are concerned that the number of incidents is accelerating and failure to address and deter these threats will place innocent people at risk and threaten the financial viability of JCCs, many of which are institutions in their communities,” the Tuesday letter said.
“I am very concerned by the multiple threats to Jewish institutions we have seen in Michigan,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), “and it is imperative that people from both parties and all walks of life come together to denounce anti-Semitism.
“I was proud to lead all my Senate colleagues in a letter of unity to condemn these hateful threats and urge President Trump’s Administration to take swift action to protect our communities from violence and intimidation.”
In the wake of the threats, which have all been hoaxes, some JCCs have upped security and are keeping members and parents updated regularly.
“We are taking certain measures to make a safe environment even more secure, but we are not at liberty to describe such measures,” said Siegel of the Detroit JCC.
Several parents weren’t shocked when anti-Semitism came to their JCC. Sam Zerin, parent of a 22-month-old at the JCC in Providence, R.I., said the Feb. 27 bomb threat there reminded him of an incident from his childhood.
When Zerin was 13, anonymous threats arrived at his Indiana public school promising a mass shooting of Jews on Adolf Hitler’s birthday. While the shooting didn’t happen, students had to participate in response drills, and Zerin skipped school that day. He said the incident taught him that anti-Semitism, even at school, is part of being Jewish.
“On the one hand, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, how is this happening?’” he said. “On the other hand, it’s like some things never change, and life goes on. Life has to go on. To a certain extent, I don’t want to give the anti-Semites what they want.”