Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Photo courtesy of downtowngal/Wikicommons.

Bomb threats shut down three L.A. synagogue locations on Shabbat

Three Los Angeles synagogue campuses were shut down following a series of online bomb threats, disrupting normally scheduled Shabbat activities on June 10.

The Glazer and Irmas campuses of Wilshire Boulevard Temple as well as University Synagogue in Brentwood were closed shortly after 8 a.m., according to Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Officer Mike Lopez. By about 12:45 p.m., LAPD cleared all locations to reopen.

“K9 units responded to the locations to make sure to render all locations safe,” Lopez said. “At this time we have no credible threats.”

Rabbi Morley T. Feinstein of University Synagogue said a staff member “found an email that was beyond nasty — horrific language, and threatening” in a temple email account and its executive director, Lisabeth Lobenthal, called the police.

About 10 police officers answered the call. The building was empty at the time, Feinstein said.

Don Levy, the director of marketing and communications at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, said a threat came in Saturday morning via an online submission form on the synagogue’s website. LAPD was notified immediately and the synagogue’s campuses were shut down. Levy said no one was at either the synagogue’s Irmas Campus in West L.A. or its flagship Koreatown building, the Glazer Campus, at the time the threats were made.

“While a communication like that can come in through something as innocuous as an online submission form, we take them all seriously,” he said. “We take any threat seriously and investigate it thoroughly to protect everybody’s safety.”

The June 10 shutdowns follow a wave of more than 160 threats to synagogues and other Jewish buildings between January and March made by phone and email, including two against the Westside Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles. Two separate arrests have been made in connection with that series of threats.

Lopez, the LAPD officer, urged communities to exercise vigilance, and to use LAPD’s iWatch phone application to notify the police of any suspicious activity.

“We just want to remind the community to be aware of their surroundings,” he said. “If they see something, say something.”

Feinstein of University Synagogue said the only scheduled activity for the morning was a Torah study group. When participants arrived, they found the building under lockdown and retreated about a block, continuing their Torah study on the sidewalk.

The lesson of the day is, Feinstein said, “We never stop the study of Torah — no matter what.”

The Westside JCC, which was targeted with two bomb threats. Photo by Ryan Torok

Westside JCC latest to receive bomb threat

The Westside Jewish Community Center (WJCC) on Feb. 27 was among the latest Jewish facilities across the country — and the first in Los Angeles — to be targeted with an ultimately discredited bomb threat phone call.

“The JCC received a bomb threat, and they have their protocols in place, which helped us out greatly. The location was evacuated. We went ahead and secured the perimeter, searched the location for any suspicious packages,” Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Sgt. Brian Churchill, watch commander with the LAPD Wilshire Community Police Station, said on the night of Feb. 27 in a phone interview. “Came up with nothing.”

The threat at the WJCC, located near Olympic Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, occurred around 4:40 p.m. Feb. 27 — about the same time that a similar threat was made to the Alpert JCC in Long Beach, the second one it has received in a month.

These threats were the latest in a series of threats made to Jewish facilities since the beginning of the year. More than 30 JCCs and Jewish day schools across North America received phony bomb threats on Monday over the course of two waves of calls, according to the JCC Association of North America (JCCA), an umbrella organization for JCCs. They included the Merage JCC of Orange County in Irvine, the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla, and two JCCs in northern California, a JCCA spokesperson said.

Additionally, an Anti-Defamation League (ADL) San Francisco office received a bomb threat, which turned out to be a hoax, on Feb. 27. The ADL incident was not included in JCCA figures regarding the number of institutions that have received bomb threats since the first wave of threats unfolded Jan. 9.

“Today’s wave of threats brings the total of called-in bomb threats over five waves in January and February to 100 incidents at 81 locations (inclusive of JCCs and Jewish day schools) in 33 states and 2 Canadian provinces,” the JCCA said in a statement Feb. 27.

Other high-profile attacks on Jewish institutions have unfolded at Jewish cemeteries, where tombstones were toppled recently in Philadelphia and suburban St. Louis.

Addressing Congress on Feb. 28, President Donald Trump spoke of the recent series of anti-Semitic events.

“Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalisms of Jewish cemeteries …remind us, while we may be a nation divided on politics, we are a country … united condemning hate and evil in all its various ugly forms.”

The WJCC, which operates a preschool, swimming academy and other programs, evacuated more than 400 people from its campus “in less than five minutes” when it received the threat, according to Brian Greene, its executive director.

He described the phone call as a live call — an administrative assistant who took the call was able to engage the person in dialogue — in which the caller used “one of those mechanically distorted voices.” As a result, he said, it’s unknown if the caller was male or female.

Many of the calls that have been received by JCCs have been disguised through technology, which has made the investigation more difficult for law enforcement authorities, according to Anti-Defamation League Regional Director Amanda Susskind. In a phone interview, Susskind said this phenomenon of disguising one’s voice with the aim of making a bomb threat is known as “weaponizing technology. It’s using technology to foment terror.” Other techniques being employed by the perpetrator or perpetrators include “spoofing,” which is the practice of making a phone call seem as if it is originating from somewhere other than its actual location, Susskind said.

An FBI investigation into the threats across the country, including the latest incidents in Southern California, is “ongoing,” according to FBI spokesperson Laura Eimiller.

Meanwhile, the JCCA called on federal authorities Feb. 27 to step up its response to the threats.

“Anti-Semitism of this nature should not and must not be allowed to endure in our communities. The Justice Department, Homeland Security, the FBI, and the White House, alongside Congress and local officials, must speak out — and speak out forcefully — against this scourge of anti-Semitism impacting communities across the country,” the JCCA statement says.

On Feb. 27, LAPD officers arrived at the WJCC “quickly,” Greene said, and conducted what was described as a thorough search of the multilevel campus before determining no bomb had been planted onsite — consistent with how things have turned out elsewhere in the country.

Still, the incidents have not been totally without repercussions. Deborah Goldfarb, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Long Beach and West Orange County, which owns the Alpert JCC property, spoke with the Journal on the phone shortly before the Alpert JCC received its second threat. She said the JCC has seen “a couple [of families] who [have] resigned, but it’s been minimal.”

Greene said Feb. 28 that WJCC families have not expressed interest in withdrawing their children in light of the threat made the previous day. On the contrary, he said he has received messages of support from families in the aftermath of the incident, including from Alexis Keiner, whose 3-year-old, a preschooler, was among those evacuated Feb. 27. In an interview, Keiner praised the WJCC for how it handled the incident.

“I didn’t pick up a terrified preschooler. I just picked up my kid,” Keiner said, recalling the day’s events. “She was a little bummed out she couldn’t go back to get her dolly, but that was about it. When they evacuated, it was like ‘coat, shoes, out,’ but it didn’t feel like that. It didn’t feel like it was a dire emergency. The educators did a really good job.”

Churchill echoed Keiner, telling the Journal the WJCC handled the threat as well as LAPD could have hoped. “I would encourage any businesses and other places like the JCC to emulate what they do,” he said. “It makes our job a lot easier.”

On Feb. 28, business appeared to resume as usual at the WJCC, with the sound of children at the playground ringing out through the parking lot as parents walked their children through the entrance. Greene, however, didn’t want to downplay the seriousness of bomb threats being made against JCCs like his own.

“People came back to preschool this morning and the pool is full of its usual morning lap swimmers. The high school upstairs [Harkham GAON Academy] is meeting as usual. I want to say ‘business as usual’ but that … downplays the impact of something like this that really is there,” Greene said. “This is harassment, this is a threat, it’s an attack and it feels that way.”

New York bombing suspect Rahami captured in New Jersey

An Afghanistan-born American sought in connection with a bombing that wounded more than two dozen people in New York City and could be linked to other bombs found in New York and New Jersey was taken into custody on Monday after a shootout, a New Jersey mayor said.

Ahmad Khan Rahami of Elizabeth, New Jersey, was taken into custody after firing at police officer in Linden, New Jersey, about 20 miles outside New York, Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage said.

Investigators believe more people were involved in the New York and New Jersey bombing plots, two U.S. officials told Reuters.

The New York Police Department had released a photo of Rahami, 28, and said they wanted to question him about a Saturday night explosion that wounded 29 people in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood and for a blast earlier that day in Seaside Park, New Jersey, authorities said.

Bus bombing rocks Jerusalem, at least 21 injured

At least 21 people were injured in a bus bombing in Jerusalem, police said, in the first such attack in Israel in years.

A city bus exploded and went up in flames Monday evening on a major thoroughfare in the southern end of the capital. The blast set a second bus and a car nearby on fire.

Two people were seriously injured in the attack, with seven moderately injured and 12 lightly injured.

An explosive device was planted in the rear half of the bus, which was stopped on the major thoroughfare at the time of the explosion, according to the Israel Police. Police are examining the possibility that a suicide bomber committed the attack and was among the injured.

“We’re looking into where the explosive came from, who placed it, how he got to the bus,” Jerusalem Police Commissioner Yoram Halevy said, according to Israeli news website Ynet. “We had no specific warning about this explosive. We are fully prepared ahead of the holidays and ready for any eventuality.”

Or Bondy was aboard the No. 12 bus on Moshe Baram Road near Hebron Road when it blew up. He had just sent his father, Tzadok, a text saying “What’s up, dad?”

The newly married 25-year-old, who was on his way home after a day at work, received burns on his face, arms and legs. Two hours later, Or Bondy was entering a CT machine barely able to talk.

“I always pushed it aside,” Tzadok Bondy told reporters regarding Jerusalem’s terror attacks. “Now it’s infiltrated my family.”

The explosion engulfed the nearly empty bus in flames. The flames scorched an adjacent bus, as well as a nearby car. A large fire raged at the intersection and sent smoke billowing into the air.

At Hadassah Medical Center, Ein Kerem, seven of the victims were hospitalized. Three were anesthetized and receiving oxygen.

The victims had burns on their upper bodies, as well as wounds from nails and ball bearings packed into the explosive device. The wounds, according to Avi Rivkind, head of Hadassah’s trauma unit, were similar to those from previous Jerusalem terror attacks.

“We’ll settle the score with these terrorists,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “We’re in an ongoing struggle against terror — terror of missiles, terror of shooting, terror of explosives, of missiles and also terror of tunnels.”

The attack follows a six-month wave of stabbing and shooting attacks in Jerusalem, the West Bank and across Israel. The rate of those attacks had declined to normal levels, though Israeli officials remained concerned about a flare-up in violence surrounding upcoming religious holidays, including Passover.

Israel experienced a wave of bus bombings during the second intifada in the early 2000s. The bombings killed hundreds of people and deterred many Israelis from riding buses. Bus bombings declined following an Israeli military operation in the West Bank and the construction of Israel’s West Bank security barrier. In recent years, most Palestinian terror attacks come in the form of either stabbings, shootings or car rammings at public transit stops.

Deputy Jerusalem Police spokesman Assi Aharoni said the police were hunting for suspects and urged the public to be alert.

FBI arrests 2 suspected Ferguson bomb suspects; later charged with federal firearms offenses

Two men suspected of buying explosives they planned to detonate during protests in Ferguson, Missouri, once a grand jury decides the Michael Brown case, were arrested on Friday and charged with federal firearms offenses, a law enforcement official told Reuters.

Word of the arrests, reported by a number of media outlets Friday, came ahead of the grand jury's widely anticipated decision on whether the white police officer who fatally shot Brown, an unarmed black teenager, should be indicted on criminal charges.

The Aug. 9 slaying of 18-year-old Brown under disputed circumstances became a flashpoint for U.S. racial tensions, triggering weeks of sometimes violent protests in the St. Louis suburb by demonstrators calling for officer Darren Wilson's arrest.

He was instead placed on administrative leave, and Ferguson has been bracing for a new wave of protests, especially if the grand jury chooses not to indict Wilson. An announcement was believed to be imminent.

Against this backdrop of heightened tensions, according to a law enforcement source, two men described as reputed members of a militant group called the New Black Panther Party, were arrested in the St. Louis area in an FBI sting operation.

As initially reported by CBS News, the men were suspected of acquiring explosives for pipe bombs that they planned to set off during protests in Ferguson, according to the official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the case.

The official said the two men are the same pair named in a newly unsealed federal indictment returned on Nov. 19 charging Brandon Orlando Baldwin and Olajuwon Davis with purchasing two pistols from a firearms dealer under false pretenses.

Both men were arraigned on Friday in federal court, the law enforcement source said.

The FBI and other federal agencies were reported to have stepped up their presence in the St. Louis area in recent days in anticipation of renewed protests after the grand jury's decision in the Brown case is made known.

An FBI official in St. Louis declined to comment except to say that the two men named in the indictment had been arrested. Officials from the U.S. Attorney's Office for eastern Missouri were not immediately available for comment.

Tel Aviv terrorist suspect says he changed his mind

An anonymous terrorist suspect called Tel Aviv police forces on Monday, August 4, and said he was fully equipped with explosives, prepared to detonate a bomb, but experienced a last-minute change of heart. Following two terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv was already in high-alert. The suspect explained, in Arabic, that he was from Hebron and currently in Tel Aviv, but unaware of his exact coordinates (apparently he was lost), right before being disconnected. A supposed recording of the phone call was uploaded onto social media; its authenticity hasn't been confirmed.