WASHINGTON — With wave after wave of bomb threats hitting Jewish centers throughout the US, parents are starting to withdraw their children from schools and other programs, concerned over possible trauma and even more fearful that something far worse could eventually transpire.
The Levite JCC in Birmingham, Alabama, has had three bomb threats since January, with the latest, on Monday morning, called in directly to its school.
Before this week, three children were pulled from its school program by their parents. After Monday, two more were removed.
While those five students are a small fraction of the 200 enrolled in its educational program, the persistence of the caller or callers who have been targeting Jewish institutions has left some parents afraid to keep their children there, despite the support they receive from the community and the safety measures already put in place.
“Our community is trying to stay strong and not give in to the fearful nature of what people are trying to do, but it’s difficult for parents,” Betzy Weinblatt-Lynch, the executive director of the Levite JCC, told The Times of Israel.
“Because of the current state of the world, we train the kids in so many scenarios — whether there be an active shooter fire, drills, other medical emergencies and so on,” she added. “So with things like this, many of them think that it’s just a drill. But, you know, I think some of them are beginning to wonder why we’re doing it so often.”
Since January there have been five waves of bomb threats to Jewish community centers and other institutions nationwide — totaling over 100 incidents. Other anti-Semitic attacks have also sparked worry in Jewish communities.
In the last week, hundreds of Jewish tombstones in Pennsylvania and Missouri were vandalized and numerous Jewish institutions received bomb threats, including 29 on Monday alone.
There have been multiple other anti-Semitic incidents in the months since the election, including swastikas and racial slurs being drawn on schools and other buildings.
The phenomenon led President Donald Trump to open his first address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday by condemning anti-Semitism and saying the United States “stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”
Trump’s remarks came hours after he reportedly told a group of state attorneys general visiting the White House Tuesday that he suspected the bomb threats may have been called in to make “others” look bad. His comment was interpreted to mean the threats weren’t necessarily genuine anti-Semitic incidents, though the White House disputed that characterization.
Weinblatt-Lynch said that her JCC takes rigorous precautions to protect its students — whether or not there are bomb threats. Still, she added, when parents express concerns about their children remaining in such an environment, she always tells them decisions about their children are theirs alone to make.
“I think that they know that we’ve trained vigilantly to keep the safety of their children, as well as the rest of our members and guests. That’s paramount, at the forefront of everything that we do,” she said. “I think they know we’re uniquely prepared to respond to these situations and that we’re getting the support from local and federal law enforcement.
‘When we try to say to them that less than one percent of bomb threats result in having a bomb, logic doesn’t prevail when people are afraid’
“I think that they’re just fearful,” Weinblatt-Lynch continued. “It’s just strictly out of fear. When we’re talking about the logical steps that we’re taking, logic doesn’t overcome fear. When we try to say to them that less than one percent of bomb threats result in having a bomb — logic doesn’t prevail when people are afraid.”
In addition to the Levite JCC in Birmingham, other Jewish community centers have seen parents pulling their kids out of programs, David Posner, a spokesman for the JCC Association of North America, confirmed, though he insisted the figures were negligible and the majority of facilities have not been seeing that kind of response.
Posner, who spoke to The Times of Israel last Thursday, before the latest wave of bomb scares, only gave the Roth JCC in Orlando, Florida, which has experienced multiple threats, as an example for a JCC where parents have been spooked by the threats.
“People who are actually taking their kids out of programming or cancelling their membership have been vanishingly small to nonexistent,” Posner said, basing his assertion on a JCC Association survey to which 60 percent of American JCCs responded.
“Whatever conversations are taking place, by and large, they’re not translating into people voting with their feet and walking out the door,” he added.
Posner didn’t respond to a request to update his comments after more bomb threats were called in to JCCs around the country this week.
One point Weinblatt-Lynch wanted to make was that while some children were being removed from programs, other people have been joining the JCC in solidarity. “The outpouring of support we’ve had from the general community has been phenomenal,” she said.
Both Posner and Weinblatt-Lynch said that those terrorizing their facilities were probably unaware of the fact that most JCC members are not Jewish.
‘One of the things they don’t understand about JCCs, they don’t recognize that JCCs are open to the entire community for participation’
“They don’t recognize that JCCs are open to the entire community for participation,” Posner said.
At the Levite JCC, for example, 67% of members aren’t Jewish.
“The JCC in Birmingham has been here for over 110 years,” Weinblatt-Lynch said. “Since our inception, we’ve been open to every race, every religion, every ethnicity. And historically, in Birmingham, that’s not always been the case.”
During the 1950s and ’60s Birmingham gained widespread attention as one of the centers of America’s civil rights movement. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth came to Birmingham with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to fight against public segregation.
Weinblatt-Lynch said the rise in the number of non-Jews participating in the JCC’s programming provided a glimmer of hope as more and more children leave.
“The beauty of that is that the only thing that’s going to overcome this type of hatred is when we share authentic Jewish experience with not only Jewish people, but with people of every faith,” she said. “They become comfortable with what Jewish life is. It isn’t foreign to them and they have friends who are Jewish. It changes how people think and respond.”