It all started when a preschool teacher found a vial marked “depleted uranium” on the floor of her classroom at Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield in the early morning of Oct. 29. It should have ended when evacuation orders were quickly called off and the building declared safe by the Springfield Police Department and HAZMAT team.
Instead, when an anti-Semitic message appeared on Facebook following coverage of the incident by a media outlet, the community was reminded of the potential reality underlying such a threat.
After finding the vial shortly before 9 a.m. that Tuesday, the teacher brought it to the attention of preschool director Mindy Rossman, who called the police and took the three children who had already arrived for early drop-off at the school to a community center across the street.
The Springfield police issued evacuation orders for the building, called in the Union County Bureau of Hazardous Materials as well as the county prosecutor’s office, and started their investigation.
Preschool was cancelled for the day for the rest of the children.
“The first thing we thought about was: Is someone trying to send a message?” said congregation president Ellen Lieberman, who told NJJN in a phone conversation that she had been on her way to the building for a meeting when the vial was discovered. “We did not know what it meant, and we and the police were taking it seriously.”
Police, tracking down everyone who had been in the building the previous evening, quickly discovered the incident was the result of an innocent mistake. A science teacher who had been in the classroom for a temple Brotherhood meeting that evening inadvertently dropped the vial while searching in his bag for a pen.
He was carrying the small amount of depleted uranium, described by the police as “marble-sized,” to use in a demonstration in his classroom the next day. He was preparing to show his students how the uranium, while posing no health risk and no danger, still emits low levels of radiation — well below the safety threshold —and still registers on a Geiger counter.
According to Andrew Moran, director of Union County’s department of public safety, the piece of depleted uranium was considered hazardous and not properly contained. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection coordinated safe disposal of the vial and its contents.
The police and the HAZMAT team finished their investigation, and by 11 a.m. the evacuation ended, the synagogue was declared safe, and everyone returned to the building. Afternoon religious school was held as usual.
“Thank God” was her reaction, Lieberman said.
In the end, the whole incident was a good trial run for the synagogue’s recently upgraded emergency procedures. “Everything went seamlessly, and that felt good,” Lieberman said, while acknowledging they would be tweaking their communication system with preschool parents.
With the actual events in the rear-view mirror, media coverage began, and that’s when the blip of anti-Semitism reared its head.
In response to a report from TAPintoSpringfield, a hyperlocal news site, posted on Facebook Oct. 30, one reader shared the report and received the comment, “Scumbags. Their religion hates everyone. They need to be met with a [sic] extinction level attack.”
The reader ultimately deleted the comment, but the synagogue notified the police and the Department of Homeland Security. TAPintoSpringfield owner Jonathan Sym called the comment “highly inappropriate,” saying, “This kind of stuff does not belong on any site. We are willing to do whatever we can to help.”
Finding the vial set into motion a series of events that, in the end, was much ado about nothing — except it elicited a hate message, reminding the community that anti-Semitism continues to pose its own hazard.