JCC evacuates following bomb threat

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is investigating a string of bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers throughout North America in January, including one that forced West Orange’s JCC MetroWest to evacuate Jan. 31.

FBI spokeswoman Samantha Tucker Shero told the West Orange Chronicle that the bureau could not comment on the specifics of the investigation. But Shero did issue a statement confirming that the bureau and division were looking into possible civil rights violations in connection to the threats.

“The FBI will collect all available facts and evidence and will ensure this matter is investigated in a fair, thorough and impartial manner,” the statement read.

That widespread investigation covers the 58 bomb threats made to JCCs on three separate days in January — all of which turned out to be hoaxes. The first wave of threats occurred Jan. 9, when 16 centers in nine states received calls. After that, 27 centers across 17 states were targeted Jan. 18. Then 15 centers in 10 states and one Canadian province received calls on Jan. 31, including the JCC MetroWest.

The West Orange threat was made at approximately 10:40 a.m., according to the police report. The report states the unknown caller was described as a 40- or 50-year-old female with a possible accent. The caller said “There is a bomb in the building” upon calling the center, per the report. When she was asked where the bomb was located, she responded,“I’m not going to tell you that” before ending the call.

Township public information officer Susan Anderson said the West Orange Police Department, Essex County Sheriff’s Department and NJ Transit police responded thereafter. Anderson said the authorities — assisted by bomb-sniffing dogs — were able to determine that there were no explosives on the premises. According to the police report, a phone number was discovered on the reception desk phone log, but WOPD Lt. John Morella said a search of the number determined that it was bogus.

JCC MetroWest CEO Stuart Raynor said patrons were allowed to re-enter the community center by the early afternoon. Raynor said JCC staff had evacuated the property shortly after the threat was made, saying the JCC has a frequently-updated safety program in place to handle emergency situations. Though he could not provide exact details of the program, he did say that the JCC staff was “well-prepared” and did a “great job” taking care of patrons throughout the incident. And things are now back to normal, he said.

“We believe we have a strong program,” Raynor told the Chronicle in a Feb. 2 phone interview. “We are open, and (it’s) business as usual.”

Raynor also lauded the local law enforcement agencies for their handling of the incident. And the WOPD is still involved; Morella told the Chronicle that the department is continuing to investigate the West Orange bomb threat, adding that the WOPD also met with JCC members and pre-school parents to address their concerns following the situation. In fact, he said the police had actually met with JCC representatives to discuss security plans prior to the threat.

Meanwhile David Posner, the JCC Association of North America’s director of strategic performance, said his association is coordinating security training for JCC executives and staff members to ensure that all professionals are prepared with critical tools, resources and contacts. The JCC Association is a partner of Secure Community Network, an organization dedicated to Jewish homeland security.

Still, the situation has disturbed the JCC. Violence against Jews was indeed mentioned in a recording of one of the Jan. 18 threats the Jewish Telegraphic Agency obtained and posted online. That recording features what appears to be a voice — altered by disguising technology — describing what turned out to be a nonexistent bomb.

“We are concerned by the anti-Semitism behind these threats,” Posner said in a statement sent to the Chronicle, before adding “We are relieved that no one has been harmed and that JCCs continue to operate in a way that puts the safety of their staff, visitors and premises first.”