Bomb hoaxes test security procedures

Bomb hoaxes test security procedures

JCC staff, police, and neighbors rise to the occasion in Tenafly

The scene outside a JCC in Miami Beach, Fla., after a bomb threat was received on Monday. (JNS.ORG/YouTube)
The scene outside a JCC in Miami Beach, Fla., after a bomb threat was received on Monday. (JNS.ORG/YouTube)

Monday’s bomb threats — directed at more than a dozen Jewish community centers in the United States and some Jewish schools in London — demonstrated several things. Hate is alive and well, preventive security measures matter, and we truly are blessed when we have good neighbors.

The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, which received one of these threats, issued a statement following a thorough sweep of the building, during which no explosive devices were found.

“A bomb threat was called into the JCC at around noon,” Jordan Shenker, the JCC’s chief executive officer, emailed in a prepared statement. “Emergency response procedures were immediately initiated. The authorities swiftly responded, investigated, took appropriate security measures, deemed the threat not credible, and the JCC safe. We understand that this happened at 16 other JCCs along the east coast and multiple other organizations around the country and in Europe today and are thankful that all threats were hoaxes.”

Members, staffers, nursery school students, and other visitors at the Tenafly JCC were evacuated to the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Theologian, which is next door to the JCC. The evacuation went smoothly. It was a very cold day on Monday, barely breaking 20 degrees, and some of the nursery school children were rushed out so quickly that they had to leave their coats behind.

Chief Robert Chamberlain of the Tenafly Police Department issued a statement as well.

“On Monday, January 9, 2016 at approximately 12 p.m., the Tenafly Police Department received a report of a phone call that was made to the Kaplen Jewish Community Center on the Palisades that stated a bomb was in the building. Jewish Community Center representatives along with security personnel immediately initiated emergency action plans. Tenafly Police Officers responded immediately to the facility while Tenafly Fire Department and Tenafly Volunteer Ambulance Corps members responded in a standby capacity. The Bergen County Sheriff’s Department Bomb Squad responded and searched the building with Tenafly officers. After a thorough search of the facility failed to locate any explosives, the building was deemed safe to resume operations… .The matter is under investigation, and anyone with information about the incident is asked to call the Tenafly Police Department Detective Bureau at 201-568-5100.”

The other JCCs in the United States that confronted bomb threats are in California, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The affected London neighborhoods are Roehampton, Ilford, and Brent. Nothing suspicious was found in any of those places.

David Posner, director of strategic performance at JCC Association of North America, who works closely with local JCCs on security, thanked federal and local law enforcement for their quick and thorough response, noting that “JCCs continue to work with them, as they do all year long, to ensure the continued safety of JCC members and all those who participate in JCC activities, as well as the safety of JCC buildings.

“We are proud of our JCCs and grateful for their professional staff, who in the face of threatened violence today, responded quickly, calmly and professionally by implementing well-practiced evacuation procedures and ensuring that no one was harmed.

The JCC Association has a partnership with the Secure Community Network, which focuses on security for Jewish institutions throughout North America and has an ongoing relationship with the Department of Homeland Security. The agencies are working together to determine the source of the calls that the JCCs received on Monday.

Joshua Cohen, director of ADL’s New Jersey region, said his organization is deeply concerned about the bomb threats. “Monday’s incident hit very close to home,” he said, adding that it came on the heels of a similar incident in Monmouth County last week, where a threatening call was made to a Jewish nursery school.

“We’re working closely with the Jewish community and law enforcement,” he said. Noting that no explosives have been found at the targeted sites, he said, “I commend law enforcement in New Jersey for their expeditious response to these incidents. It’s important to respond and to investigate them.

“Threats like this are not new to the Jewish community,” he added. “Excellent preparation is the key to a good response.” While bomb threats are not always credible — usually they are designed as a scare tactic, to cause fear, panic, and disruption — “they must be taken seriously.”

Mr. Cohen said that “security is a long-term process that can’t be deployed only when there is a bulletin or an advisory alert.” Organizations, he said, must review their security guidelines on a regular basis and think of ways to improve them. “Every staff member must know the proper security procedure,” he said. “These incidents are a reminder to review [the guidelines] and make sure everyone knows them.”

He said that his office regularly reaches out to JCCs and other Jewish organizations in the community, providing them with resources and reminding them about best practices.

“The unfortunate reality is that any religious institution may become a potential target,” he said. “They have a responsibility to protect themselves.” While he does not know the Tenafly JCC’s specific security plan, “it sounds like they followed their procedure, evacuating the building, calling law enforcement, and conducting a sweep. Clearly there was a plan.”

Mr. Cohen said the FBI’s 2015 hate crime statistics showed that Jews still are attacked more than any other religious group. While there has been a spike in bias incidents targeting Muslims, “Jews are still the number one target in the country.”

The ADL’s audit of anti-Semitic incidents for 2015 showed that New Jersey ranks third in attacks against Jews, trailing only New York and California. And, Mr. Cohen said, “we know that for every incident reported, many go unreported.” Anyone who would like the ADL to advocate on their behalf in the face of anti-Semitic incidents, should remember that “we can’t do anything if we don’t know about it,” he said.

Father Peter Zougras, religious leader of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Theologian, said that when he received a phone call from the Jewish institution telling him that there was an emergency and that they had to send people over to shelter there, he told them to come immediately.

It was a cold day

“We didn’t find out until later what happened,” he said, but he did note that “traffic was backed up tremendously” and that the police were “very good, quick, and helpful.

“We have a strong relationship with the JCC,” Father Zougras said. “They’re wonderful people. We’re all one family, God’s children. We didn’t ask what the problem was.”

It was a case of neighbor helping neighbor, he added, pointing out that the two facilities often use each other’s facilities and have built a path between the two buildings so that anyone going back and forth doesn’t have to go out on the street.

Father Zougras estimated that his church took in some 300 people, 200 of them children. They waited there until their parents arrived to take them home. The children, he said, understandably were confused, and at least one young child told her mother, “‘I was so scared,’” he said.

“Children are smarter than we think,” he said. “They knew something was wrong. We took them in and tried to make them comfortable.”

“Everyone did a great job,” he continued. “We need to help one another in this world. We should be filled with love, especially with children. It’s truly what we were put on earth to do.”

And the JCC “was extremely grateful,” he added. “People called and personally thanked us. They would do the same for us.”