Marblehead JCC decries anti-Semitic threats

March 13, 2017

By GAYLA CAWLEY

MARBLEHEAD — Anti-Semitic bomb threats affected eight states last Tuesday, including Massachusetts, and one Canadian province, leading a local Jewish Community Center (JCC) and police department to increase security and awareness.

Last week marked the sixth wave of anti-Semitic bomb threats this year, according to Robert Trestan, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). In Massachusetts, there were three on Tuesday, one at the ADL New England Regional Office in Boston, where Trestan works, and two at Jewish Day Schools in Framingham and Newton.

Other states affected were Alabama, Florida, Illinois, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, and Ontario, Canada, Trestan said.

Overall, Trestan said there have been 140 bomb threats against 110 institutions, throughout 36 states, since January. He said the threats are predominantly by phone, with some email. He said the ADL in Boston received a threat by phone, but he didn’t take the call.

“I think it’s deeply disturbing that the one thing that 140 bomb (threats) have in common is a Jewish target, and that results in impacting tens of thousands of people, instilling a sense of fear, and that goes to toddlers who go to a JCC preschool, to their parents who drop them off in the morning, to people who work in Jewish institutions,” Trestan said. “I’ll leave it to the police to figure out how it should be categorized in terms of criminal language. They’re certainly trying to instill fear and intimidation in the community.”

Martin Schneer, executive director of the JCC of the North Shore, based in Marblehead, said the organization has not received a threat so far.

“We feel very fortunate and I’m not convinced that we won’t eventually have our turn,” Schneer said. “It’s an attack on our way of life, an attack on our communities and a way to disrupt our life.”

Schneer said the organization is constantly on top of what’s happening, and has a good relationship with local police. Last Thursday, he was about to step into another meeting with Marblehead Police.

The JCC association recently put together a conference call with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Secure Community Network. Schneer said he would be meeting with DHS representatives this week, after the department had agreed to meet with various institutions across the country in response to the threats.

“We’ve heightened our sense of security and diligence around this,” Schneer said.

Security is always a priority in the post 9/11 world, Schneer said, as cameras are installed around the building. He said the balance of security response is between making people more anxious and having more confidence from the organization being on top of things. By and large, he said the members have been thankful. He said certain procedures are in place, including evacuation plans.

“Anti-semitism hasn’t gone away,” Schneer said. “It’s the oldest prejudice. We are, I guess, an easy target. We are a minority. It’s hard to tell what’s in the mind of an anti-Semite and why they would choose to do something so horrific and disturbing.”

Schneer said in response to the threats, he received a letter of support from Attorney General Maura Healey.

“I write to express my solidarity with your organizations at this challenging time for the Jewish community in Massachusetts and across the country,” Healey wrote in a letter to leaders of the Massachusetts Jewish community centers. “In the past months, we have witnessed a rise in anti-Semitic harassment and intimidation unprecedented in recent decades.

“These serious offenses, as well as the vandalism of Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia and St. Louis and other anti-Semitic acts in schools and synagogues, are incidents of deep concern to me and my office. These attacks on Jewish institutions have contributed to a climate of fear and uncertainty. I know that parents are worried for their children’s safety. Now, more than ever, it is vital that government, law enforcement, faith and community organizations come together to reassure the public and put an end to this hateful conduct.”

Marblehead has experienced its own anti-semitism recently. Last August, vandals wrote “Jews did 9/11” in the dirt of the softball field at Marblehead High School. At the time, Trestan released a statement that the perpetrators were promoting a pernicious conspiracy theory claiming that Jews were responsible for 9/11. The vandalism was swiftly condemned by the ADL, Marblehead police, town and school officials.  

In Dec. 2015, students in a Marblehead High School class configured pennies in the shape of a swastika, an emblem of the Nazi party, took a photo and posted it on Snapchat. Swastikas were also scrolled on some basketball courts in multiple town parks last year.

In nearby Swampscott, the symbols were chalked on a Pleasant Street sidewalk last April, and another swastika was scrawled in the parking lot of the middle school.

Peabody Police announced on Saturday they were increasing patrols and awareness combating anti-Semitism. Police Chief Thomas Griffin told the community in a statement that steps were being taken to ensure the preservation of safety within the Jewish commune throughout the city. Patrols in specific areas are increasing, which involve both uniformed and plainclothes officers.

“Although there have been no recent specific threats or incidents within the city, we need to remain vigilant and protect the people and places of gatherings within the Jewish community,” Griffin said in a statement.

Citing statistics from the ADL, police said as of June 2016, the organization reported there were 56 reported anti-Semitic incidents in the New England region, nearly as many for all of 2015, when 61 were reported. The incidents have been reported as vandalism, harassment, assaults or terrorist threats, police said in a statement.

The AMCHA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to investigating, documenting, educating about, and combating anti-Semitism at institutions of higher learning, reported 618 incidents involving anti-Semitic behavior in 2016. In 2017, there have been 116 documented reports as of Saturday, police said.

“Our community policing officers will continue to meet with members of the Jewish community to address their concerns,” Griffin said in a statement. “If we all work together, we can prevail over the alarming increase of these disturbing events.”

Trestan said the ADL has done “a tremendous amount” of training on how to respond to a bomb threat, including a training course with the FBI in Canton last month. Another training session with the FBI will be later this month in Springfield. He said training covers how to respond to a bomb threat, determine when evacuation is necessary and how to work with local law enforcement. He said education is provided on how the threats are happening, what their impact is and how they’re impacting technology in a criminal way.

“We live in a very security conscious environment right now and it’s very important for people to be trained and prepared,” Trestan said. “Right now, we are encouraging everyone to take advantage of this type of training that’s being offered by the experts in law enforcement. We’re sponsoring it, along with the FBI.”

A former reporter fired for making up details in stories, was arrested in St. Louis earlier this month on a cyberstalking charge, before the most recent wave of threats. Federal officials say Juan Thompson is responsible for making at least eight of the anti-Semitic calls, as part of an attempt to harass and frame his ex-girlfriend.


Gayla Cawley can be reached at gcawley@itemlive.com. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.