L.A. synagogues carry on in face of bomb threats

June 14, 2017
Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Photo courtesy of downtowngal/Wikicommons.

The email bomb threats that shut down three Los Angeles synagogue campuses last weekend weren’t enough to keep Zachary Ansell from coming of age.

The Glazer and Irmas campuses of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, as well as University Synagogue in Brentwood, were closed from about 8 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. June 10, a Saturday, according to Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Officer Mike Lopez. But Zachary, whose bar mitzvah was scheduled to take place at the Irmas campus in West L.A., wasn’t to be deterred.

“It wasn’t aimed at my son,” Zachary’s mother, Debra, said of the threat. “But it was aimed at disrupting the community and the continuity of our rituals — and it didn’t.”

The family was taking pictures in the sanctuary when Rabbi Steven Z. Leder informed them of the situation.

Though the threat later was determined to be a hoax, synagogue officials and the LAPD decided to clear the campus, forcing the Ansells to scramble for a new venue. They had scheduled an afternoon reception to follow the service at the Beverly Hills Marriott, and the hotel agreed to hold the ceremony there, as well.

Leder, meanwhile, sprung into action.

“I strapped a Torah into the passenger seat of my car, put 100 siddurim in the back and off I went to the hotel,” he wrote in an email to the Journal.

He was met in the hotel lobby by a staffer named Michelle, who offered to help in any way she could. “She could not have been nicer or more helpful,” Leder wrote.

The hotel had prepared a pop-up sanctuary, with tables and chairs for the bar mitzvah crowd of some 90 people.

“I told everyone about Michelle and that she, not the cowardly hater who sent the threatening and bogus email, represented the real America,” Leder wrote.

At University Synagogue in Brentwood, the only event scheduled for that 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, according to Rabbi Morley T. Feinstein.

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

“We never stop the study of Torah — no matter what.”

Feinstein said the threat was delivered via an “email that was beyond nasty — horrific language, and threatening,” sent to a temple email account. After the temple’s executive director called the police, about 10 officers responded to the scene. The temple was empty at the time, Feinstein said.

Don Levy, the director of marketing and communications at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, said the synagogue received a threatening message via an online submission form on its website. LAPD was notified immediately and the synagogue’s campuses were shut down. A bat mitzvah planned for the temple’s Glazer campus in Koreatown was rescheduled for later that evening.

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

By 12:45, LAPD had cleared all three campuses to reopen.

“K-9 units responded to the locations to make sure to render all locations safe,” Lopez said on June 10. “At this time, we have no credible threats.”

The June 10 shutdowns follow a wave of more than 160 threats to synagogues and other Jewish buildings from January to 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.

As for the June 10 threats, if their goal was to spread fear and anxiety, they failed at least on one count.

“Zachary, by the way, was calm through the whole thing,” Debra Ansell said. “He’s not a kid who’s easily fazed.”

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