Maryland Jewish centers find support amid the terror

When an unknown man phoned in a bomb threat against the tiny private school she runs in Annapolis, Sarah White swung into action.

She led the 32 students of the Alpert Family Aleph Bet Jewish Day School to a safe location. She answered calls and texts from dozens of concerned parents. She worked with police as they swept the school and found it secure.

Classes resumed two hours later — and that wasn't the only good news to emerge from a bad situation.

White and Aleph Bet have been deluged with shows of support in the weeks since the January threat, from the scads of encouraging cards, letters and emails to offers of help from Christians, Muslims and others.

The gestures have taken on an added layer of poignancy now that Israeli authorities have announced the arrest of a Jewish teen they believe has made threats to dozens of Jewish community centers, day schools and other institutions in North America this year — possibly including seven in Maryland.

"We're relieved that an an arrest has been made, and we're hopeful that [authorities] have in fact found the primary perpetrator of the threats that we and other JCC's across the United States and Canada have received," said Robin Rose-Samuels, a spokeswoman for the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore, whose facilities were threatened four times.

Amidst the wave of threats — and a concurrent rise in the incidence of anti-Semitic vandalism in the United States — many Jews who might otherwise have felt intimidated or isolated say they've ended up feeling a stronger sense of belonging within the broader community than ever.

Messages of solidarity have poured in to Baltimore-area JCC sites and to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, which was threatened twice.

At Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, which was threatened in January, head of school Mitchel Markus has said he "received countless emails, phone calls and letters from concerned citizens and local and religious leaders expressing their support" that day. More than 40 religious leaders from across the spectrum of faiths visited campus to speak out at a solidarity rally.

Empathy has turned to action at the B'nai Israel Congregation and the Jewish Museum of Maryland, victims of a vandal who spray-painted a Nazi symbol on their shared campus on Lloyd Street last weekend.

When Rabbi Etan Mintz, spiritual leader of the synagogue, called for a quick counter demonstration last Sunday, more than 60 people showed up to sing songs and issue statements of condemnation.

He has also received cards, calls and lunch invitations from members of an array of groups, including Muslims, Unitarians and military veterans.

"What the perpetrators of these acts — who desecrate sacred spaces, or make threats, or make bigoted, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic or racist statements — don't seem to realize is that they end up bringing communities together," he says.

Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the Jewish Museum, says neighbors, friends and fellow museum administrators, including officials of the neighboring Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture, reached out in the aftermath, and the calls and messages keep coming in.

Even more important, Pinkert says, the museum will proudly proceed with its ongoing activities, including "Remembering Auschwitz: History, Holocaust, Humanity," its newest exhibit. It plans to hold "A Walk of Remembrance and Refuge," a related event aimed at honoring refugees past and present, through downtown Baltimore on April 5.

Pinkert says he and Reginald Lewis museum director Wanda Draper are discussing possible joint projects aimed at displaying community solidarity across groups.

"I think that the statements of support can lead to coalescing action, action that circles around never allowing events like this to be considered normal," he says.

The year opened with a spate of anti-Semitic incidents across the country, including the desecration of historic Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia.

More than 160 bomb threats have been phoned in or emailed to Jewish institutions in at least 38 states and three Canadian provinces, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Many have led to lockdowns or evacuations.

The first of those hit Maryland on Jan. 9, when threats came in against the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore and its Washington-area counterpart. Anonymous callers later threatened Aleph Bet, the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and the Rosenbloom Jewish Community Center in Owings Mills.

Three more such threats were made against Maryland JCCs.

The Anti-Defamation League has said its regional offices in 26 cities have received increasing numbers of reports of anti-Semitic incidents such as the painting of swastikas on Jewish institutions, the defacement of headstones and bullying in schools.

Last month, deputies of the Harford County Sheriff's Office found fliers with racist language, images of swastikas and the web address of a white supremacist group posted in a Bel Air neighborhood.

No suspects have been arrested.

Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council says Maryland's Jewish institutions have been bolstering security for years.

Strong, long-standing relations between the Jewish community and law enforcement has helped, Libit says. So have advances in communication technology that allow for swifter, better coordinated responses to threats.

The council's security director, former Baltimore police officer Keith Tiedemann, has been working with many local Jewish institutions to secure Department of Homeland Security grants aimed at strengthening community centers. He has schooled many of those institutions on active-shooter and lockdown protocols, and coordinated communications with police during each of the recent threats.

It hasn't hurt that the leadership of numerous Muslim, Christian and Jewish organizations have reached out to the council with expressions of support.

Libit says he'd prefer no one threatened the community. But he said the recent spate has brought a benefit the perpetrators never intended.

"There's a real feeling that we're in this together and we can't let the acts of a handful of people interfere with or destroy the tolerant community that we've all worked so hard to build," he says.

Thursday's arrest of the suspect, a young man of dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship whose name has not been released, suggests that community has a global reach.

Law enforcement authorities from several nations, including the FBI in the U.S., are reported to have taken part in the investigation to find him.

"Investigating hate crimes is a top priority for the FBI," the agency said in a statement. "We will continue to work to make sure all races and religions feel safe in their communities and in their places of worship."

Rose-Samuels said her organization, like the others, continues to receive expressions of support.

"We are not indifferent," reads a postcard signed by the Labbe family of Missoula, Montana, which arrived last week. "We stand with you against those that seek to terrorize you."

"I think we can all agree that the world is a crazy place with crazy people in it," writes an 11-year-old named Najla in another letter. "That person who said there was a bomb obviously was biased and didn't care what he/she did to you. I believe we all should be treated the same, no matter what religion we follow."

A hand-drawn crescent, Star of David and peace sign adorn her note.

The Rev. David Carl Olson, lead minister of the First Unitarian Church in Mount Vernon, emailed Mintz the day after the swastika appeared on a sign at B'nai Israel.

He'd never met Mintz, but he expressed solidarity from his congregation, asked if the rabbi needed help and invited him out for coffee to explore "the common interests we have on acting powerfully in the public arena."

It wasn't a stretch, Olson said, especially given that Unitarian churches in New Orleans and New York have also been vandalized in recent weeks.

"We're in a time right now when there are a whole lot of hateful indicators in the public conversation," Olson said. "Religious communities have got to say there's a better way."

White says it took a day or two to adjust emotionally to what happened at her school, but she's glad the protocol they'd practiced weeks before worked so well and caused so little upset.

She has also been amazed to see "how many people were truly affected by what happened to a small Jewish community."

White called the arrest in Israel encouraging, even if Aleph Bet, like other Jewish institutions, must remain vigilant.

"Although it is unclear if the individual arrested was responsible for all of the calls, and specifically the one at our school, I do believe that any time terror is removed from a situation, it provides a level of relief," she said.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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