Special to the Journal
Last week, on Wednesday, January 18, at about 9:45 a.m., a bomb threat was called into the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center in Newton, forcing an evacuation of young children, fitness club members, staff and others who are regulars at the JCC of Greater Boston. It was a similar disturbing scene at the Worcester JCC. The two local institutions that were targeted were part of a nationwide threat against some 30 JCCs and other Jewish institutions in 17 states in New England and across the country. All of the threats were false.
Local police and firefighters were on site in Newton and Worcester within minutes and gave the okay for the buildings to reopen after about one hour. As previously reported in the Journal, the Leventhal-Sidman JCC and the JCC of the North Shore were on alert on January 9 following a string of threats that were phoned in to seventeen centers across the country. After reviews by local law enforcement, neither was forced to evacuate, as neither JCC had been targeted.
The January 18 evacuation at the Leventhal-Sidman Center went quickly and smoothly, according to Samantha Levine-Neudel, a spokeswoman for the JCC in Newton. She was impressed with the staff and children at the JCC’s Early Learning Center who were well prepared as they have been for fire drills.
The health and safety of people in the JCC is a priority, she said. “But it’s also important to open and provide services that people rely on,” Levine-Neudel said the day after the bomb threat.
“It’s nothing any of us would choose. But everyone came in [to work] today and were ready to start the day,” she said. The building was full with members and vibrant.
One Worcester-area mother whose family has been part of various programs at the JCC said that her emotions ran from disbelief to feeling vulnerable, to recognition that there is a new reality. In an article for Kveller, Melissa Cohen wrote that when the bomb threat was called in to her local JCC, the harsh reality of increased anti-Semitic incidents hit home.
“The bomb threat was just that – a threat,” Cohen wrote. “There was no bomb, and the children were never in any danger. But I still feel terrorized. I still feel vulnerable.”
In her book, “Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home,” published last April, local international security expert Juliette Kayyem addressed exactly the concerns raised by Cohen. The Journal caught up with Kayyem in a phone conversation last week. Below is an excerpted interview with Kayyem, a lecturer on international security at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former Assistant Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Kayyem also served as Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s homeland security advisor.
Jewish Journal: What was your reaction when you heard about the bomb threats at the local JCCs?
Julliette Kayyem: “Unfortunately, institutions that are identified as Jewish have historically been targets for violence and they will likely be in the future. What you’re seeing, I fear, is the tension, or the potential hostility, that is part of our political environment that is now getting played out in these kinds of threats. I don’t see an end to them in the near future.
JJ: Can responses from leaders at the national and local level make a difference?
JK: Yes. The tone [set] by our civic and religious leaders makes a difference. We are not hearing a lot of that now, or we are seeing at the same time the rise of the neo-Nazis as part of the political agenda. It’s throughout Europe, as well. I think until the [divisive] political discourse ends, you are going to see individuals behaving in violent or threatening ways against institutions like the JCC.
JJ: Following the most recent bomb threats and evacuations, JCCs locally reopened as quickly as possible after they were cleared to open by police, despite the fright that comes with the bomb threat. Is that the approach you would advise?
JK: These are just threats and there seems to be no proof of credible action against the JCCs. I would absolutely continue to enjoy what they are all about and continue to enjoy the benefits. I always say it’s important to understand your environment, to have situational awareness and talk about planning. I hate to say it, but it’s better to have the conversation with your kids about active shooter protocols. But the obligation is on the institutions. They have to work with local enforcement, demand extra surveillance, and train employees. In cases where there may be more concerns, if threats are persistent, they may [have to consider] hiring security guards.
JJ: In response to bomb threats earlier this month, the JCCs in Newton and Marblehead had their security plans reviewed by local police who found they were sound.
JK: I couldn’t agree more. Institutions like the JCCs really do have to test their systems and not be embarrassed by mistakes. I’m sure there are things to learn. It’s only through constant practice that it [the response] becomes like muscle. It’s also an opportunity for law enforcement to familiarize themselves with local organizations.
JJ: How should parents and families respond?
JK: The idea that you can ignore this away is not true. It’s better to empower ourselves and our kids about what to do in a crisis.