JCC MetroWest in West Orange was among 50 JCCs and Jewish institutions around the country to receive bomb threats via email late Sunday morning. None of the emails were determined to be “a credible threat” by the Secure Community Network (SCN), the central address for security concerning the American-Jewish community.
The email, sent to the local JCC’s general inbox, threatened to detonate explosives scattered throughout the area. By the time it was received and reported to Chris Strom, COO of JCC MetroWest, SCN had already offered its assessment and no one was evacuated.
Michael Masters, national director and CEO of SCN, said the threatening emails to the JCCs across the country “make a generalized bomb threat” but do not mention a specific time. He said the emails are “largely similar [in wording] if not identical” and that they were sent over the weekend “within a specific time frame.”
He added that his office is “not aware of any credible threat related to the emails.”
A spokesperson for the JCC Association said emails were sent to JCCs in New York, New Jersey, the District of Columbia, and 20 other states.
After being alerted to the emails, Masters said his office alerted the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security “so as to ensure the safety and security of JCCs throughout the United States.” In addition, it instructed every JCC that received an email to contact local law enforcement.
Strom called the West Orange Police and three police officers came to the building to look through “every nook and cranny of the building,” he said, while the fire department was on standby.
“All things considered, it really wasn’t that bad,” said Strom. “People hear there’s a bomb threat and it’s obviously a very alarming thing, and we take it seriously, but obviously, there was no credible threat, and everyone’s safe, and we’re going about our business.”
Strom pointed out that events like this one are intended to divert the JCC from its core mission, and so his approach is to not give it too much attention.
In a statement, the FBI said it “continues to work with our state and local partners in identifying the sender of the emails. At this point in time, we do not consider these threats to be credible, there is no nexus to terrorism, and there is no threat to public safety. As always, we urge the public to remain vigilant and report suspicious activity to law enforcement.”
Responding to the incident, Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey executive vice president and CEO Dov Ben-Shimon said, “We are deeply disturbed by these and other threats that target our community, particularly in a climate of rising anti-Semitism. We’re grateful to law enforcement for following up on these threats and protecting all citizens, and to our state and national lawmakers for standing shoulder to shoulder with the Jewish community.”
This was not the JCC MetroWest’s first experience with bomb threats; it was amongst the wave of more than 2,000 bomb threats made to JCCs and Jewish institutions in the United States and at least five other countries in early 2017. All but about half a dozen were linked to a 19-year-old Jewish Israeli-American, Michael Kadar, who was arrested in March 2017 in Ashkelon, Israel.
Last weekend’s email bomb threats were sent just a day after the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness raised the threat posed by white supremacist extremists from “moderate” to “high,” the topmost category for threat levels for any extremist group in the state.
A spokesman for the Office of Homeland Security said no immediate link had been found between the increase in the threat level and the email threats.
Days later, on Feb. 25, Gov. Phil Murphy released his proposed budget for the 2021 fiscal year, which included a significant increase in security funding — some $5 million — for the state’s Nonprofit Security Grant program, an increase of $3 million from the previous year. The grant money would be available for qualified institutions to hire additional security personnel or to purchase target hardening equipment.
Additionally, per-pupil security spending at non-public schools would increase from $150 to $200.
“In the wake of increased hate-related incidents in New Jersey, we are extremely grateful to Governor Murphy for prioritizing non-profit, faith-based, and non-public school security funding,” said Joshua Cohen, director of government relations and external affairs at the Jewish Federations of New Jersey.
Cohen said the $5 million budget “sends a strong message that the administration is deeply committed to ensuring the safety and security of our most at risk non-profit and religious
Meanwhile, Robert Wilson, chief security for Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey, said that Sunday’s incident underscores the need to have policies for bomb threats in place, as well as working relationships with the local police department. “The first time you meet someone [from the police department] you don’t want it to be inside of an emergency operation,” he said.
Regarding the MetroWest JCC, he said, “They have a security team in place. They have the law enforcement relationships in place. So, this wasn’t something where they were caught off guard.” But that’s not to say it was easy to brush off. “It’s still unsettling, still annoying, [still] frightening, to some extent,” he said.
Stewart Ain is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. NJJN Managing Editor Shira Vickar-Fox contributed reporting.