Jewish centers evacuated in Pa., N.J., Del.; threats unfounded

Policeman walks dog around the area of Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill after a telephone threat there Monday morning.

Bomb threats forced the evacuation Monday of Jewish centers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware — including those in Cherry Hill and Wynnewood — amid a string of threats to Jewish institutions nationwide.

As many as 20 threats were received against Jewish community centers and day schools in at least 12 states, according to the Anti-Defamation League. No bombs were found; authorities were investigating.

According to the ADL, there have 90 threats against Jewish institutions since January, including one at its national headquarters in New York. It urged institutions to beef up security.

The latest threats, while unfounded, rattled already fragile nerves and were quickly condemned by lawmakers and religious and civil rights groups.  It was unclear whether the threats were made by a single person or a group.

The threats came after a weekend in which more than 100 headstones at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia were vandalized and toppled. A similar incident had occurred near St. Louis, where headstones in a Jewish cemetery were damaged.  

"Any anti-Semitic act or act of intimidation aimed at Jewish institutions and people in Pennsylvania is truly reprehensible, and we must find those responsible and hold them accountable,” said Gov. Wolf. “This is not who we are as Americans or Pennsylvanians.”

The Katz Jewish Community Center and Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey in Cherry Hill, and the Perelman Jewish Day School (Stern Center) and the Kaiserman JCC in Wynnewood were evacuated for several hours Monday due to threats; the buildings were cleared by early afternoon.

In Cherry Hill, police said a bomb threat received by telephone was unfounded. K-9 units from several South Jersey agencies checked the building.

"They said there was a bomb, and that was all," said Les Cohen, executive director of the Katz JCC.

The evacuation also affected the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey, located in the center at Kresson and Springdale Roads. The bomb threat came on a busy morning, with hundreds of people on the scene, said Jennifer Weiss, the federation's executive director.

Children in classrooms at a day-care center and senior citizens in the swimming pool were among the hundreds who were evacuated, she said.

“Has there been anything like this in our lifetime? It’s just devastating,” Weiss said.  “It’s unbelievable.”

Gloria Andersen, 66, was in a water aerobics class in the six-lane indoor heated pool when the building was evacuated. Everyone was escorted outside, many like Andersen in only their swimming suits and swim shoes. Senior citizens using canes and walkers were escorted by employees, she said.

Wrapped in a huge spa towel retrieved by a staff member, the retired teacher said she waited outside with the other evacuees for about 15 minutes.  Some of the staff members offered their coats to the evacuees or let them sit in their cars to keep warm. Andersen said she eventually accepted a ride home from a staffer.

"This isn’t going to stop me from coming to the JCC," she said. "What we need to do is stand up and come together more."

In Wynnewood, the Perelman Jewish Day School (Stern Center) and the Kaiserman JCC were evacuated at 10:45 a.m. after the school received a bomb threat. The school, which enrolls about 250 students in grades K-5,  is located next door to the JCC at City Avenue and Haverford Road. About 300 people were in the center, officials said.

"Perelman and other Jewish agencies are very well-trained on this situation and nothing comes before safety," said Steven Rosenberg, marketing officer for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, centers in York and Harrisburg were evacuated. Also receiving a threat was a JCC in Wilmington.

About 400 people were evacuated from the York JCC after a bomb threat was received around 10 a.m., said Melissa Plotkin, director of community engagement and diversity. It reopened about two hours later.  

Wolf, who has served on the board of that center, denounced the threat as “cowardly and disturbing.”

AJ Greenetz, a personal trainer at the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill, who was among those evacuated there, said Monday was the third bomb scare she has experienced. She also works at the Wilmington center.

"I have gotten used to it, unfortunately," she said. "But that doesn't make it any less painful to my heart."

Centers in New York, Indiana, Alabama, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Rhode Island, Virginia, and North Carolina were among those that received threats Monday.

The FBI said that the agency and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division were investigating possible civil rights violations in connection with the threats.

“I’m getting sick and tired of this stuff. I find it hard to believe that people can’t see this for the hate that it is. It’s a disgrace,” said Brian Dworkin, 55, of Voorhees, who was working out in the gym at the Cherry Hill JCC when it was evacuated.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) also condemned the incidents in the state, as did his Republican counterpart, Sen. Pat Toomey.

In Delaware, Sen. Tom Carper said he was meeting with Jewish leaders at the Siegel JCC in Wilmington when the bomb threat was phoned in.

"It is heartbreaking for such a flash of fear to overtake a place of strong community and joy that brings together people of all ages under one roof — from the babies in the day-care center to the senior citizens taking part in exercise classes," the Democrat said in a statement. "These acts must end."

U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) called for an investigation and joined Cherry Hill Mayor Chuck Cahn in urging citizens to speak out against anti-Semitism.

“Every human being and every religious and cultural institution has a right to feel safe, and I want our residents to know that we will not sit back and let fear paralyze our community or our residents,” Cahn said.

In the wake  of the threats, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D., N.J.) sent a letter to the Pennsylvania  Emergency Management Agency requesting that federal security funds be used to protect Jewish communities in South Jersey. The agency handles federal funding in the Philadelphia, Camden and Wilmington areas.

In a statement, Camden Bishop Dennis J. Sullivan offered the support of Catholics in South Jersey, saying, “We recognize that an attack or threat against our Jewish family members is an attack against all peoples of faith.”

Weiss, of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey, said the center plans to maintain normal operations, but with extra precautions in the wake of the threat.

"We’re really trying to keep perspective, keep living our lives," Weiss said. "You have to not let them win. You can’t stop living."

Staff writers Chris Palmer and Emily Babay contributed to this article.

Continue Reading