The Jewish community in the United States has experienced an uptick in anti-Semitism in the past few months, with two Jewish day schools in the Washington, D.C.-metro area being targeted with bomb threats Feb. 27, amid a wave of similar threats across the nation.
Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md., and Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, Va., both received phone calls Monday morning that insinuated there was a bomb located in the school.
On Friday, FBI agents arrested Juan Thomas in St. Louis in connection to at least eight of the threats made, though he is not assumed to be the main suspect behind the wave of bomb threats.
Laurie Ehrlich, the director of marketing and communications at Charles E. Smith, said the upper school campus, for grades six through 12, received a threatening call just after the school day had begun.
“At 9:22 Monday morning, our front desk receptionist at our upper school campus received an automated message that there was a bomb in the building and that ‘Jewish souls would be destroyed,’” Ehrlich said.
Ehrlich said the school then followed established protocols and notified the police, who, after a swift arrival, conducted a thorough search of the campus and determined that no bomb was present.
“Police showed up in less than five minutes and they made the determination that the school did not need to be evacuated at that time,” Ehrlich said. “They had canine units that swept the building and determined it was a hoax, and by 10:40, the school had received the ‘all clear.’”
Rick Goodale, public information officer for the Montgomery County Police Department, said the department is investigating the threat and hoping to catch its perpetrator.
“We don’t want to give away any of the investigative methods that we use,” Goodale said. “I have not received any updates that anybody has been charged. Sometimes a phone number can be spoofed — sometimes tracking where these calls come from can be a lengthy process.”
Meanwhile, the Gesher Jewish Day School received a similar bomb threat at around the same time, according to Officer Don Gotthardt, spokesman for the Fairfax County Police Department.
“About 9:19 Monday morning, we received a call from Gesher Day School that they had received a bomb threat by phone that stated there was a bomb in the school,” Gotthardt said. “We immediately sent officers to the scene, and in talking to our officers, the school administrators decided to evacuate, so I’m told that 143 students and staff were evacuated while our officers searched the grounds and interior of the school. Fortunately, nothing suspicious was found. Our officers cleared the scene at 10:47.”
Gotthardt said that while he cannot disclose details about the investigation, Fairfax detectives are coordinating with other intelligence units throughout the country to reach the culprit or culprits of these threats.
“Our detectives will probably be in communication with investigative entities throughout the country just to look at any commonalities, similarities, differences, anything like that,” Gotthardt said. “The technical aspects of it, if there are any recordings saved or any means to identify the source of the call.”
The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department declined to comment on these incidents because they did not occur under its jurisdiction.
Ehrlich said students and parents were aware of the trend of bomb scares at Jewish centers before the phone call came.
“Students and parents have already been on alert. It’s not something you want to happen to you, but it did, that was ‘our’ day. There was definitely a sense of calm in the building when it was happening,” Ehrlich said.
Charles E. Smith has provided resources to parents and their children to cope with this attack, according to Ehrlich.
“We let our students know that if they have questions, please ask. Our principals of all three divisions — lower, middle and upper — did communicate with the parents on Monday evening and provided resources as to talk to children about the events that occurred,” Ehrlich said.
Gesher Jewish Day School could not be reached for comment.
Anti-Semitic incidents have become frequent and publicized since the election of President Donald Trump. Vice President Mike Pence visited a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, which was the site of vandalism last week.
Trump addressed these incidents during his joint address to Congress on Feb. 28. He also mentioned the recent shooting of two Indian men in a Kansas City, Kan., bar that left one dead.
“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 forms,” Trump said.
Georgetown University Director for Jewish Life Rabbi Rachel Gartner expressed concern — but not great surprise — over the increase in incidents.
“This is a really painful moment for me and for the Jewish community here and everywhere. We’re seeing an uptick of really vivid, horrible anti-Semitism. The sad reality is just like with Obama — racism wasn’t born with Obama,” Gartner said. “Anti-Semitism wasn’t born in this moment, it is just becoming more visible, and it’s a painful reminder of the undercurrent that has been there, unfortunately, for generations.”
Gartner said that while the Jewish community is not in an emergency situation, many Jewish students at Georgetown have come to her seeking dialogue and comfort.
“Students are more anxious, more pained, more sensitive. I’ve had more instances of people coming to me for pastoral care,” Gartner said.
Gartner also commended the Muslim community at Georgetown and at large for its support during this time.
“The Muslim community has been remarkable in its support. The Muslim students on this campus have reached out and said, ‘how can we support you?’” Gartner said. “Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are different issues, but they are not unrelated.”
Incidentally, Goodale said that while bomb threats against schools based on religious affiliation are somewhat rare, threats against Islamic centers have occurred previously in Montgomery County, Md.
“I can’t recall anything in recent memory at schools, but periodically we get threats at Islamic centers, that kind of thing. It does happen that we receive threats to religious facilities,” Goodale said.
Ehrlich said that the Jewish community at Charles E. Smith will persevere through Monday’s bomb threat and continue living their lives.
“Everything here on out is business as usual; we look forward to getting through the rest of the week,” Ehrlich said.
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