By Charles Bernsen
Sara Melamed’s child attends preschool at the Gordon Jewish Community Center, and she happened to be there on Jan. 18 when a wave of telephone bomb threats were directed at the GJCC and 26 other Jewish community centers across the nation.
Melamed said she was “flabbergasted” by the quick response of the GJCC staff, which evacuated the entire building and transported the preschool students by bus and cars to a safe haven nearby.
“I felt safe, and I felt my child was safe,” Melamed said during a 70-minute community forum on Wednesday, March 8 at the GJCC about the ongoing series of bomb threats – more than 120 in all – that since early January have disrupted operations and caused evacuations at more than 80 Jewish community centers, schools and child care centers in 33 states.
More than 200 people attended the forum, where they heard from Jewish community leaders as well as a number of local government officials and law enforcement officers, including Metro Mayor Megan Berry; Metro Council member Sheri Weiner; Matthew Espenshade, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Nashville office; Rick Shipkowski, assistant commissioner with the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, and West Precinct Police Commander Marlene Pardue.
GJCC Executive Director Leslie Sax said the forum was arranged to both update the community about what is being done locally in response to the threats and to highlight the outpouring of support and assistance for the GJCC, whose campus also is also home to the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, Jewish Family Service, and Akiva School, the local K-6 Jewish day school. In all, more than two dozen local government officials and law enforcement agencies attended the forum or sent representatives.
“The GJCC has been here for 100 years and we plan to be here for at least 100 more,” said GJCC board President Carla Rosenthal in opening the forum.
Mayor Barry described the threats as an affront to civil society in general and pledged the city’s support. “I want you to know that the city stands with our Jewish brothers and sisters,” she said. “My message to you is simple: We’re here for you. We’re all in this together.”
The GJCC has been targeted three times during the recent wave of threats, and Sax said the facility has taken a number of measures in response. Although she was limited in what she could reveal for security reasons, Sax said the GJCC has instituted new communication, threat assessment and evacuation protocols and conducted security training for 90 members of its fulltime and part-time staff. She noted that GJCC telephone operators were the first to record one of the telephone threats.
In remarks to the forum, Federation Executive Director Mark S. Freedman said the Nashville Jewish community is supported by the Secure Community Network (SCN), an affiliate of the Jewish Federations of North American that advises Jewish groups on security issues and has been working with the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to bolster security at Jewish institutions around the country.
“We remain resolute,” Freedman said. “We will not cave in to telephone terrorists.”
Sheri Weiner, one of eight Metro Council members who attended the forum, said she has seen an outpouring of support from here colleagues on the council who are eager to help the community respond to the threat. As a result, she said, they pushing for state and local legislation that would toughen the criminal penalties for making bomb threats and rewrite local ordinances, which now refer to houses of worship as churches, to be more inclusive.
In all, more than 120 threats have been phoned in to Jewish community centers, schools and daycare centers, including another wave on the day of the forum that hit 16 Jewish institutions. While a St. Louis man was arrested in early March and charged with making eight of the bomb threats as part of an attempt to implicate a former girlfriend, the investigation into the source of the others is continuing, said Espenshade, the Nashville FBI assistant agent in charge.
“I took part in a meeting with FBI Director (James) Comey this morning with all 56 field offices, and these threats were the first item on the agenda,” said Espenshade. “There are hundreds of people within the FBI that I can say confidently are touching this every day and trying to come to a solution on identifying and then arresting an individual or disrupting those acts.”
However, in response to frustration expressed by some at the forum at the inability to identify the perpetrators or halt the threats, Espenshade cautioned about expecting too much too quickly.
Though limited in what he could say about an open investigation, he indicated that those behind the calls are using “incredibly sophisticated” technology capable of routing calls through a series of devices from various spots around the world that are difficult to trace and identify. While investigators may eventually be able to get an idea of where the calls are originating, they may never be able to say with certainty “that’s the person who was on the other side of that handset.”
During a question-and-answer session, Sara Melamed, the mother of a preschool student who was at the GJCC during an evacuation, said, “The attacks don’t scare me. They make me angry. Am I foolish not to be scared?”
In response, Espenshade said, “The thing I can’t tell you is whether they have the ability to act [on the threats]. That’s the thing we’re constantly evaluating in our work every day.”
Sax said one bright spot to come out of the wave of intimidation is the outpouring of support, much of it from the non-Jewish community. Both the GJCC and the Federation have received dozens of letters and emails, including a one from a group in Vermont called the Love Brigade that consoles victims of hate and a packet of letters from students at Belmont University taking a Holocaust course. Sax said the GJCC is hoping to create some kind of display with them.
“It makes you realize there is love in this world,” she said. •