Miami-Dade County

South Florida Jewish leaders gather to discuss recent bomb threats

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz heads a discussion on anti-Semitic vandalism on Friday, February 3, 2017, at Broward College.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz heads a discussion on anti-Semitic vandalism on Friday, February 3, 2017, at Broward College. cguerrero@elnuevoheraldcom

South Florida Jewish leaders gathered in Broward Friday morning to strategize with law enforcement following a series of bomb threats nationwide that have forced evacuations of Jewish Community Centers.

On Friday morning, the FBI arrested Juan Thompson, 31, in St. Louis in connection to at least eight of the threats in a few states not including Florida. Thompson, a former journalist, allegedly made the threats to harass a woman. Authorities don’t believe he is the perpetrator behind the bulk of the threats nationwide.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, who organized the meeting at Broward College was grateful an arrest was made but said other perpetrators are still at large.

“I have been assured by our FBI, local law enforcement, by all of the law enforcement involved in these investigations that this is being given the highest priority,” she said.

Leaders of Jewish schools, centers and synagogues held a closed-door briefing with the FBI and local law enforcement agencies to discuss security preparedness. The media was then allowed to watch the public portion of the meeting during which leaders discussed ways that they are already working with government agencies to combat anti-Semitism including trainings for law enforcement about hate crimes. Leaders called for the Jewish community to speak up when they see hate crimes directed at Muslims or other groups and to work together with people of all faiths to combat bigotry.

The Anti-Defamation League, a national organization that combats anti-Semitism, has tallied 122 bomb threats to Jewish institutions since the beginning of 2017. On Monday, the ADL said 20 threats occurred in a dozen states — the fifth time this year that multiple Jewish institutions have received bomb scares on a single day, including the David Posnack Day School in Davie. Prior bomb threats occurred at Jewish institutions in Miami, Kendall and twice in Miami Beach.

Jewish institutions have beefed up their security by adding more cameras, increasing training for staff and closely coordinating with local law enforcement departments.

Directors of the Miami Beach JCC and the David Posnack JCC in Davie said after the meeting that their centers have not seen a drop in participation.

“One of the keys to the new landscape now is to assure all members and potential participants of all the new security measures,” said Paul Frishman, chief executive officer of the Miami Beach JCC. “Our goal is to make them feel safe and secure amid unsolved bomb threats.”

The David Posnack JCC has previously held drills with a private company and the Davie police department, said Scott Ehrlich, chief executive officer of the community center.

Summer camp registration numbers are exactly the same as they were at this point last year, and one parent enrolled a child in the preschool the day after the bomb threat, Ehrlich said.

“Parents have seen the upgraded security,” he said.

In addition to the bomb threats, there have been other threatening incidents, including damage or toppling of 100 gravestones at a Philadelphia Jewish cemetery and a shot fired into a window of an Indiana synagogue.

On Wednesday night, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that it would increase assistance to Jewish community centers nationwide, including offering vulnerability assessments, and connect centers with training about active shooter preparedness.

The bomb threats and attacks on Jewish communities have become an intense political issue during Donald Trump’s first several weeks in office.

Some Jewish leaders nationally have argued that Trump was too slow to denounce the anti-Semitic incidents nationwide. The first bomb threat occurred on Jan. 5 — Trump denounced them on Feb. 21. Trump condemned the attacks during his speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night.

“Recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its ugly forms,” Trump said.

Wasserman Schultz has been critical of Trump, but during the meeting Friday there was no mention of the president.

However, some Jewish leaders expressed concerns that there are divisions within the Jewish community along political or religious lines and called for working together.

“Wherever we sit on the religious political spectrum we come together one people,” said Michael Balaban, president of the Jewish Federation of Broward County.