Bomb threats alter way of life, peace of mind

March 15, 2017
The Westside JCC, which was targeted with a bomb threat on Monday. Photo by Ryan Torok.

When a bomb threat was called into the Westside Jewish Community Center (WJCC) on Feb. 27, forcing hundreds of people to evacuate the building, the specter of violent anti-Semitism that looms over focal points of Jewish life reasserted itself. Although the distorted voice on the phone issued what turned out to be a hoax — as with the other 160-plus threatening phone calls and emails received by Jewish organizations nationwide this year — and the WJCC had recently beefed up security measures, the community was put on edge.

So, at a March 8 meeting organized by the WJCC and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to address the lingering concerns — one day before a second bomb threat was emailed to the WJCC — it appeared the scope of the threat had expanded into the psyches of WJCC members, and heightened levels of stress and suspicion had set in.

The meeting began with WJCC Executive Director Brian Greene summarizing the swift, effective reaction to the bomb threat that led to the building being vacated within seven minutes and a rapid law enforcement response that brought 20 officers from the Los Angeles Police Department. It continued with discussion about how to broach the topic of anti-Semitic terrorism with children, led by the ADL’s David Reynolds. And it concluded with a Q-and-A session with Greene.

The dialogue provided a view into how the Jewish community is reacting to and coping with the wave of anti-Semitism. Fears and frustrations have been adding up. People have pondered worst-case scenarios and considered the sacrifices they would have to make in the name of security, some of them for the first time.

“I think [the bomb threat] was a wake-up call for a lot of parents,” said Jenny Kurpil, who had two children attending the WJCC preschool when the building was evacuated. After receiving a phone call notifying her that her kids had been taken to a secure location, Kurpil said, she broke down in tears. Even though she was confident in the security protocols that were in place, “the actual knowledge that a threat call had been placed [made me] very emotional.”

She wasn’t alone. The meeting was the third that the WJCC organized after the evacuation. An informal bagels-and-coffee huddle was held the morning after the threat, and a WJCC/ADL-organized gathering for preschool parents the following week was so positively received and well-attended that another was scheduled for the entire community.

About 20 people came to the March 8 meeting (half the number of the previous event’s). When invited to describe their feelings about the recent incidents in one word, attendees volunteered “edgy,” “unsettled” and “sad.” When reviewing security protocols, they talked in dark — but in their view, not inconceivable — hypotheticals.

People confronted by such hostile acts often face a psychological challenge, Greene said, as they struggle to reconcile those emotions with the actual risks, considering that none of the bomb threats has resulted in material damages or human casualties.

“The anxiety, the apprehension, the fear that this brings up, it reminds you of all the other [scenarios],” Greene said. “It opens up the door. … It just brings up these emotions in you. Before you know it, your mind’s going to places that are fearful.”

For Amanda Perez, whose children attend the preschool but were not present during the recent scare, going to the meeting wasn’t necessary for her peace of mind.

“I’m an extremely rational person,” Perez said. “My husband is the more emotional person. Even though my kids weren’t here, my husband went bananas. You just have to trust that all the policies are in place — otherwise you’ll make yourself crazy.”

The elevated caution prompted some parents to reconsider friendly habits — such as holding open an otherwise secure door for a stranger — that feel like embodiments of Jewish values but could potentially invite harm. Others admitted that even an official change of protocol on those matters would be difficult to enforce.

But everyone agreed that compromising their usual, relaxed way of life had become a necessary measure.

“My attitude has changed,” one parent said. “I’m more guarded.”

Though people seemed assuaged by the security at the WJCC, they left with a sense that their fear of potential danger — whether rational or exaggerated — was not going away.

“I wish I knew [it would],” said Kurpil, the mother of two WJCC preschoolers. “Unfortunately, I don’t think it will in the current climate we live in.”

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