The wave of bomb threats against Jewish community centers that President Trump denounced in his joint address to Congress — 100 so far this year, including 31 on Monday — have all been hoaxes. But they are causing damage anyway — with fear and disruption, children being kept home from school and the cost of added security.
“That is their intended goal, to make it difficult for us to do business as usual,” says Betzy Lynch, executive director of the Levite JCC of Birmingham, Ala. Hers is one of several organizations where parents have withdrawn youngsters from preschools after threats — either out of fear that there will eventually be violence or because of the toll taken by repeated evacuations. Lynch’s facility has done so three times since January.
“I raced from work twice after getting texts saying the kids had all been moved out of the building,” said one mother in the Midwest, who asked not to be named so as not to draw more possible attention from “whatever sick people are making these threats.” She has temporarily taken her three-year-old daughter out of the local JCC’s preschool program and will keep her in the care of a neighbor’s babysitter for “at least a while” to see if “things calm down.”
“It’s not the school’s fault; I love the school,” she said, another reason that she did not want to use her name. “I realize I am letting the bad guys win by being scared and running away. But the alternative was worrying all day.”
Allison Vitagliano, whose 4-year-old son was evacuated from his preschool at the JCC of Central New Jersey on Jan. 18, says she might do the same. “If it continues, I will pull my child from school,” she says of the place her older son also attended and where both children take swimming lessons and attend sports activities. “I won’t be happy. I love the community; I love the teachers and the program,” she says.
Her fears, she says, are “not so much the blowing-up thing, because I don’t feel someone would be able to get in and do something like that. But at the end of school the kids come out single file and they are standing in a parking lot, out in the open, and anyone could drive a truck through. I know it could happen anyplace, but the fact that lately the calls are happening at the JCC makes you constantly on edge.”
And even parents who swear they will never withdraw their children admit they have thought about it. At the JCC in Maitland, Fla., the largest in the central part of the state, there have been three evacuations due to telephone bomb threats in the past 13 days, and 50 of the 200 preschool students have left the school. Samantha Taylor’s 3-year-old daughter is not one of those who left, but she says, “I can’t pretend my husband and I haven’t had the conversation ‘Are we crazy to keep her there?”
Taylor, a former board member of the preschool, was in the building when the first call came. She had just dropped off her daughter and quickly joined the teachers as they wheeled out cribs filled with infants and walked with lines of hand-holding toddlers, all while pretending nothing scary was going on.
“’We’re on a nature walk! Oooh, look at the fire truck!’ That sort of thing,” Taylor says.
While her daughter has no idea she wasn’t just taking a walk with her teachers, her two sons, ages 9 and 12, are quite aware of the threats and are wary of attending JCC summer camp as planned this year. “I want them not to worry when they go there,” Taylor says. “I liken it to Internet trolls when I talk to them. ‘These people are just trying to scare us. They are hiding behind their phone the way that trolls online hide behind their computer.’”
She says she believes her own reassurances, because “I feel secure when I am there,” at the JCC campus. “Sadly, because of attacks over the years on similar places, they are prepared for this. They have drills for lockdown, drills for evacuation. They had that school evacuated in a matter of moments.”
Although all the parents and administrators interviewed for this article said they knew Jewish organizations have always been at some risk, the recent wave, which is being investigated by the FBI, has still left them stunned.
“I’m realizing I live in a naive bubble because I don’t understand where this hatred is coming from,” Taylor says. “I knew there was discrimination against Muslims, Mexicans, black people, gay people, but it’s strange to me that this is happening to Jewish people. I thought we were past that and we could focus on supporting the other groups who are under attack.”
The irony, she and others say, is that most JCC members in many places are not Jewish. There is no question about religion on the membership or school enrollment form, and many join because the centers provide high-quality fitness facilities, cultural programs, or preschool at a reasonable cost.
“We’re not actually Jewish,” Vitagliano says of her family. “We joined because I love the community. Our older son is on the autism spectrum and the JCC has a shadow program that was perfect for him. For our younger son, we looked at the YMCA preschool but it wasn’t that warm — it wasn’t the right fit.”
Says Lynch of the Birmingham program, “Sixty-seven percent of our members are of faiths other than Jewish. The JCC has been here for 110 years and from its inception has welcomed everybody of every origin and every ethnicity.”
That diversity, she says, “is the only thing that’s going to help us overcome the kind of hatred we’re facing. Kids here make friends with kids who are different. Their parents do too.”
In Central Florida, the Maitland JCC is holding a fundraiser to offset both the losses from the 50 students who left the school and the costs of increased security. Three donors have pledged to match up to $50,000 each toward a goal of $200,000.
And in Birmingham, the Levite JCC expects to also look to donations. “This is an extremely philanthropic community and we are going to need their help,” Lynch says. “I’m am worried about finances, 100 percent I am. Because the financial impact, that’s part of the goal of whoever is doing this. But I am not going to let them win on that.”
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