On February 27, the local Jewish Community Center received yet another threatening call claiming that a bomb was located on the premise, the third such act of terrorism in less than two months. The National Jewish Community Center Association announced the next day that over 80 JCCs across the nation have received over 100 bomb threats since the year began.
In the aftermath of that Monday’s call and the evacuation it necessitated, an acquaintance and fellow member of the JCC remarked that she was worried about how these events would impact membership. Another member said that they were considering canceling their membership because of the threats.
I understand why they would consider taking that step. But now, perhaps more than ever, our local JCCs need and deserve our support, financial and otherwise. To allow ourselves to be driven away from a space that brings together individuals of disparate backgrounds, faiths, and socioeconomic statuses is to allow terrorists to proscribe the boundaries of our lives.
Make no mistake: these are acts of terrorism. The perpetrators of these threats clearly intend to make us afraid to attend our JCCs and, in doing so, weaken these institutions. They are targeting these centers because they know what a positive role JCCs play in communities across the nation and want to see the connections that they facilitate between citizens torn.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed Betzy Lynch, the executive director of Birmingham’s Levite Jewish Community Center, about the second bomb threat they received. We discussed the history and mission of the center, about how it had been founded over a century ago in response to the local country clubs’ policy of excluding Jews and African-Americans, and consequently how inclusion is part of the center’s DNA.
“From our experience being discriminated against, a core Jewish value that this place is built on is that everyone is welcome,” Lynch said, explaining that the center brings together every kind of Birmingham citizen, to the extent that they offer financial aid to those who wish to join but can not afford to pay the dues.
“The relationships you build with other people at the end of the day are the most important piece of our work. And that’s what we do to build community,” she said. “I think because the JCC has been here for 110 years in Birmingham, we actually make Birmingham a far more interesting place and a far more diverse place. There are not very many places where you’ll see the kind of crossover that I’m describing.”
I was reminded of Lynch’s words when I saw the images of children in cribs being rolled out into the rain following the Feb. 27 bomb threat. I thought of my brother, now college-aged, and how he attended that same daycare when he was a toddler, and the summers I spent at the JCC’s day camps, and how my parents would have felt if someone hiding behind robocalls had threatened to hurt us.
I don’t pretend for a second that I can tell parents how to make these kinds of difficult decisions dealing with the safety of their children. All I can say is that these terrorists want the Gentile children attending the JCC daycare to not have any Jewish friends and for the Jewish children to be kept away from their Gentile peers. I worry about what will happen to our community if they succeed to any degree.
But perhaps I am being too generous in discerning a long-term plan in these actions. It could well be that these threats are simply the lashing-out of individuals who fear a world they cannot control. Take, for example, the St. Louis man arrested last week on charges of calling in at least eight of the bomb threats, allegedly in an attempt to punish an ex-girlfriend. Unfortunately, the perpetrator(s) behind the other bomb threats remain at large, and the FBI recently announced that they suspect that a group based outside of the country is responsible for a majority of the calls.
What I can say for certain is that while these criminals are trying to strike terror into communities across the nation, they are clearly cowards themselves. They are afraid of Jews and Gentiles knowing and being known by each other, and in fact are so afraid of it that they will resort to intimidation and threatening children to try to keep us isolated from each other.
They’ve already lost, of course. But on their way out of the door of history, these anti-Semites can do real damage as they lash out at innocents across the nation. It’s up to us to make a conscious choice to stand with the threatened and refuse to be divided. By bringing community members together who might otherwise never interact, places like the JCC make our cities and towns stronger. Don’t allow the worst of us to rob our communities of that.