The US Federal Bureau of Investigation warned of a “broad threat” to synagogues across New Jersey in a statement Thursday, sparking alarm and promises of increased police protection at Jewish places of worship.
“The FBI has received credible information of a broad threat to synagogues in NJ,” the security agency tweeted. “We ask at this time that you take all security precautions to protect your community and facility. We will share more information as soon as we can. Stay alert.”
The law enforcement agency added that it was “taking a proactive measure with this warning while investigative processes are carried out.”
The Orthodox Union umbrella group tweeted immediately that it was “speaking with FBI and communicating to shuls about this right now,” using the common Yiddish vernacular for a synagogue.
The Anti-Defamation League also said it was working with the FBI to “mobilize to address this credible threat. We advise that synagogues and other Jewish organizations remain calm and in a heightened state of alert.”
New Jersey is home to an estimated 500,000 Jews, with major Orthodox population hubs in Lakewood, Passaic, Toms River and Teaneck, and congregations of all denominations in most cities and towns across the state.
The Lakewood Shomrim, a Jewish neighborhood security group, said it was patrolling the area with a focus on synagogues, schools and wedding halls and was coordinating with law enforcement.
“We urge the community not to panic but remain vigilant at the same time,” the group told The Times of Israel, calling on the public to report anything out of the ordinary to police and the Shomrim.
A group representative said the threat had not been directed against any specific area and that the FBI had likely handled the danger.
In April, an antisemitic attacker went on a rampage in Lakewood, stabbing and running over several Jews, putting the community on edge. The suspect has since been charged with federal hate crimes.
“Antisemitism is on the rise. Hopefully nothing comes out of this but being that Lakewood did go through not too long ago an attack obviously people are very worried and scared,” the Shomrim said.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said he had been in touch with the FBI’s field office in Newark, New Jersey as well as the state’s attorney general and its homeland security office.
“We are closely monitoring the situation and are working with local law enforcement to ensure that all houses of worship are protected,” Murphy said.
The FBI alert was posted after officials discovered an online threat directed broadly at synagogues in New Jersey, a law enforcement official said. The posting, though, did not target any specific synagogue by name, the official said. The official could not discuss details of the investigation publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Many local synagogues across the state sent out messages of warning to their members urging them to remain vigilant during prayers and daily activities and to be on the lookout for suspicious activity.
The Police Department in Teaneck, a town in the north of the state with a large Jewish population, said in a statement that “out of an abundance of caution” it will be increasing its patrol activity at local synagogues and Jewish schools.
The New York City Police Department also said it was working with the FBI to ensure the safety of Jewish New Yorkers out of an “abundance of caution.” Police in Brooklyn said they were increasing their presence at synagogues and other locations.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul said there were no known threats to synagogues in New York.
The American Jewish Committee said it was “deeply alarmed” by the FBI warning and would “continue to monitor the situation as it develops.”
Rabbi David Levy, who heads the AJC’s New Jersey office, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the warning was unusual and alarming.
“This report stands out because it’s rare to get a report like this in New Jersey,” he said. “We are taking it seriously and I’m grateful for law enforcement is taking it seriously. They are increasing patrol around synagogues and Jewish facilities.”
Levy added, “Synagogues and Jewish facilities are following their plans and procedures for keeping their communities safe.” Many institutions have increased attention to security in recent years, with the support of national Jewish groups and federal funding for security improvements.
One of those groups, the Community Service Society, said it had worked with 30 synagogues to launch volunteer security teams and had trained over 1,000 volunteers in the state in the last 15 years. “We will spare no effort to ensure that Jewish congregants and their security volunteers are safe in their houses of worship,” the group’s CEO, Evan Bernstein, said in a statement. “Antisemitism cannot continue to be normalized in America.”
Congregations across New Jersey were responding to the news of the threat on Thursday afternoon.
“We are already in discussions with our security committee, who will be bolstering the Synagogue’s security measures for the coming days,” the rabbi and president of the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston wrote to members. “Please be vigilant when entering and exiting the Synagogue building to ensure that all doors are closed securely, and do not congregate outside the building. May Hashem protect us all from danger and harm.”
Multiple New Jersey synagogues contacted by JTA declined to comment. It was unclear if the people answering the phones were aware of the threat.
New Jersey Congresswoman Rep. Mikie Sherrill tweeted: “We cannot stand for the rise of antisemitism in New Jersey and across the nation — threats against our Jewish community are absolutely unacceptable and have no place in our community. Please stay vigilant and take care of each other as the FBI continues to investigate.”
In 2019, New Jersey saw one of the worst antisemitic attacks in recent years when two attackers opened fire in a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, killing the Jewish owner and a Jewish customer as well as a store employee.
The attacker was a member of the Black Hebrew Israelites, a group that espouses antisemitic ideas and believes Jewish people are imposters who have attempted to replace Black people as the real Israelites.
In Jersey City, Mayor Steven Fulop said Thursday that police would be posted at the city’s seven synagogues and foot patrols would be added in the broader Jewish community.
Democratic Representative Josh Gottheimer, whose district encompasses part of the area in northern New Jersey affected by those attacks, said in a statement Thursday that recent comments by Kanye West and the social media post shared by NBA star Kyrie Irving have contributed to the problem.
“I am deeply concerned and outraged by today’s alert from the FBI,” Gottheimer said. “This is what happens after years of antisemitic comments from public figures, including, most recently, Kanye West, Kyrie Irving, and others,” he said.
Antisemitism has been once again in the headlines in the United States in recent weeks, in particular after a series of antisemitic statements by rapper Kanye West.
Some of West’s statements have mirrored ideas that are common among Black Hebrew Israelites. While the rapper has been widely condemned and dropped by most of his sponsors and collaborators, some individuals mounted public defenses in Los Angeles and Florida, worrying local Jewish groups.
There have been multiple attacks on synagogues in the United States in recent years, including the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which killed 11 people — the deadliest attack ever on the Jewish community in the United States.
In 2019 a gunman attacked the Chabad of Poway in California, killing one woman, and earlier this year a man took congregants hostage at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas.
The Jewish Federations of North American umbrella group announced earlier this week that the number of Jewish communities with comprehensive security programs has increased by 42% over the past year, from 45 to 64 since it launched its $130 million LiveSecure initiative.
AP, JTA and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.