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.”