Gesher and CESJDS were two of 31 Jewish institutions across the US targeted by bomb threats on Monday.
School officials and parents praised the swift police response to bomb threats at two local Jewish day schools this week, but Jewish organizations across the country are demanding an end to the ongoing threats and increased federal and state funding to protect their communities.
On Monday February 27, Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, Virginia, received a bomb threat from an unidentified caller at 9:19 A.M., said Head of School Dan Finkel. The Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School’s (CESJDS) Upper School in Rockville received a machine-recorded phone threat at 9:37 A.M., Head of School Rabbi Mitchel Malkus said. Both schools immediately contacted the police.
Police officers from Montgomery County and Fairfax County arrived at both schools within minutes, the heads of school said. After consultation with police, Gesher’s 143 students evacuated the building. CESJDS high school students were in the auditorium, and middle school students were in class when the threat was received, Rabbi Malkus said. Following police advice, CESJDS middle and high school students remained in place during the police search.
Officers and canines searched both schools for explosives. The all clear was given for CESJDS at 10:40 A.M. and for Gesher at 10:47 A.M.
In both cases, classes quickly resumed. “Once we established that it was safe,” Mr. Finkel said, “getting open again was our priority.” The Gesher students returned to their classrooms and faculty took a few minutes with each class to explain what happened and to make sure that students understood and felt safe. At CESJDS Upper School, High School Principal Dr. Marc Lindner made an announcement to all students explaining what happened and asking them to return to their learning.
“They cleared the school, no threat was found,” Montgomery County Police Information Officer Rick Goodale said. “And now [our detectives] are trying to determine who made the threat.” Goodale said that because modern technology allows callers to disguise or “spoof” their phone number, it can be very difficult to track down the source of these threats. Fairfax County Police Spokesperson Don Gotthardt said that their investigators are aware of the incident in Rockville and will work with Montgomery County police as needed to find the culprit.
When asked about the police response to the bomb threats at Gesher and CESJDS, school officials and parents commended the police’s actions. “The police were here within two minutes. They were fantastic,” Gesher’s Dan Finkel said.
Julie Skolnick, a mother of a CESJDS lower school student and founder of With Understanding Comes Calm–– an organization supporting parents and educators of gifted and exceptional students–– was already scheduled to give a presentation to teachers on Monday afternoon. Skolnick dedicated the beginning of her presentation to thanking police and security personnel for keeping them and the students safe.
Gesher and CESJDS were just two of 31 Jewish institutions targeted by bomb threats on Monday according to a Jewish Community Association of North America (JCCA) press release. The JCCA said that eight day schools and 23 Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) across the continent received bomb threats Monday.
The threats on February 27constitute the fifth wave of bomb threats against North American Jewish institutions this year according to the JCCA. Since January 1, 2017, 100 incidents have occurred at 81 Jewish day schools and JCCs in 33 states and two Canadian provinces.
In a Tuesday report on Forward.com, JCCA Director of Strategic Performance David Posner called on the U.S. government to take action. “Members of our community must see swift and concerted action from federal officials to identify and capture the perpetrator or perpetrators who are trying to instill anxiety and fear in our communities,” Posner said.
To date, no culprits have been identified for any of these bomb threats. The FBI Office in Indianapolis released the following statement:
“The FBI and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division are investigating possible civil rights violations in connection with threats to Jewish Community Centers across the country. The FBI will collect all available facts and evidence, and will ensure this matter is investigated in a fair, thorough, and impartial manner. As this is matter is ongoing, we are not able to comment further at this time.”
The Orthodox Union’s Advocacy Center has been lobbying for increased federal and state funding for Jewish institutions for over a decade. In 2004, the OU was part of a coalition that pushed Congress to create the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which provides grants for nonprofits deemed at risk of terrorist attack by state security officials. According to the OU, since 2004 over $150 million has gone to Jewish schools, synagogues, and other institutions to upgrade security in their buildings.
More recently, OU Advocacy has pushed state governments in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania to provide security funding for private schools. New York and New Jersey provide private schools $32.6/student and $75/student, respectively, to purchase security services, equipment, and technology. Pennsylvania and New York City have programs to help private schools hire security guards.
In response to the recent bomb threats, OU Executive Director for Public Policy Nathan Diament said in a press release, “The bomb threats at Jewish institutions this month underscore the unique security threats faced by religious organizations and nonprofits.” The press release called for a pilot program in New Jersey to provide $10,000 for each Jewish institution “to hire security personnel at critical junctures throughout the year.” The Nonprofit Security Grant Pilot Program (A-425) was introduced to the New Jersey legislature in November 2016, but has now gained new relevance.
No such legislation is pending in Maryland or Virginia. OU State Political Director Maury Litwack said, “In Pennsylvania, New York State, New York City, and New Jersey, local and state government have effectively come together to increase security aid for nonpublic schools.”
“Last week, [New York] Governor Cuomo pledged an additional $25 million in funding to protect nonpublic schools in light of these ongoing threats. I strongly suggest every legislature take a real look if there is more funding they can provide to nonpublic school children–– who don’t currently have the resources they require,” he said.
Independent of government funding, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and other organizations have been working with schools to improve security protocols. Rabbi Malkus said that CESJDS works with Jewish Federation Director of Security Brian Johnson, the Israeli Embassy, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Secure Communities Network to improve school security and Gesher Jewish Day school also works with the Jewish Federation and others on this. CESJDS mother Julie Skolnick said that she is pleased with the visible uptick in school security, as well as the school’s overall approach to safeguarding the students.
With all the focus on school security, parents and school officials never lose track of their schools’ mission: Jewish education. “Of course we want to be safe,” Skolnick said, “but we cannot allow these fringe elements to literally–– or in their own minds–– affect us in a way that doesn’t allow us to enjoy the beauty of Jewish education.”
Gabe Aaronson is a special correspondent for Kol HaBirah.