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After 3 violent threats made against a Syracuse Jewish center, the local Jewish community remains more vigilant than ever

Codie Yan | Staff Photographer

Linda Alexander, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Central New York who has been involved in the organization for about 15 years, said nothing like recent threats against several Jewish Culture Centers took place before.

The first thing that greets visitors before they walk into the Jewish Community Center of Syracuse are bright yellow stickers on its front doors, warning of camera surveillance and a ban of all shotguns, firearms or rifles.

Now that the center, located in DeWitt, has received three terrorist threats since January, visitors will soon have to walk through a completely new entrance where they will also have to buzz in, said Linda Alexander, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Central New York.

In January the Syracuse JCC received two anonymous phone calls threatening to bomb the center, causing everyone in the building to evacuate. More recently, another threatening anonymous phone call was made to the Syracuse JCC on March 7, causing the center to go on lockdown. No one had to evacuate during the third threat.

“No one’s had this happen before,” said Alexander, referring to the threats made to several JCCs in central New York. Alexander has been involved with the Jewish Federation of CNY for about 15 years.

The Syracuse JCC is not the only center in central New York to receive threats. In Albany, a JCC received two bomb threats as of February. In March, a JCC in Rochester had to evacuate twice after the center received multiple bomb threats via email. On top of that, a Jewish cemetery in Rochester was vandalized on March 3.

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For two months, there were no suspects arrested in connection to the stream of threats. But on Thursday, FBI and Israeli officials arrested a 19-year-old man as a suspect connected to the series of bomb threats in the U.S., NBC News reported. The unidentified man, who is also Jewish, holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Israel. The suspect’s motive remains unclear, but his lawyer said he suffers from a brain tumor that impacts his cognitive functions, according to NBC.The bomb threats are a part of a national wave of terror threats against Jewish institutions. As of March 15, there have been a total of 166 bomb threats made against Jewish institutions across 38 states and 3 Canadian provinces, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

The uptick in hate crimes in the local area has caused many JCCs, including the one in Syracuse and the Winnick Hillel Center for Jewish Life at Syracuse University, to increase their security measures.

Brian Small, the executive director of SU’s Hillel, visits the JCC in Syracuse once a week to teach a Hebrew high school class about applying to colleges as a Jewish student. He also said he meets regularly with leaders in the Jewish community in Syracuse.

Even though no one has been hurt by the threats, they have caused unease in the Jewish community in Syracuse. Small remembers feeling afraid when he received a message that the Syracuse JCC was threatened, for the first time, in January.

“I have to admit I wasn’t shocked,” Small said. “I was very upset, because I realized that what had been happening at other places across the country just started happening to us.”

But when he went to a meeting at the Syracuse JCC where community leaders were debriefed on the first bomb threat, it really began to hit home for Small.

“As a dad myself of kids, it was really scary and it really made me reflect on this idea … like I just want my family to be safe,” he said.

The Syracuse JCC holds classes and daycare for children of all ages, including infants. After the initial threat, other Jewish daycare centers immediately had local police complete sweeps of their buildings that included bomb-sniffing dogs, Small added. Small’s own children go to a local a Jewish daycare, as well.

“I got physically nervous. I got physically anxious in the moment,” he said. “My stomach got a little queasy about some of the details they were talking about.”

Small’s nerves calmed once he sat down with officers from SU’s Department of Public Safety and the Syracuse Police Department to develop a stronger emergency procedure plan should SU’s Hillel receive similar threats. DPS has also increased its presence monitoring the Hillel center, Small said.

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Every week, a small group of SU students from the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity have gone to the Syracuse JCC on Fridays to serve meals to elderly people in the community. Those trips were put on pause for a while after the initial bomb threats, said Emilia Navarrete, a junior international relations major who has been volunteering at the JCC this year.

The trips have started back up, but Navarrete, who has gone to the Buffalo JCC her entire life, said she never considered halting her visits to the community centers.

“I just can’t imagine not going to the JCC,” she said. “Also I can’t imagine letting these people scare me.”

Shortly after the arrest of the man connected to a series of threats was announced, Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement that JCCs and other Jewish institutions should not ease their security measures just yet.

“While the details of this crime remain unclear, the impact of this individual’s actions is crystal clear: These were acts of anti-Semitism. These threats targeted Jewish institutions, were calculated to sow fear and anxiety, and put the entire Jewish community on high alert,” Greenblatt said.

Whatever extra security the Syracuse JCC puts in place following the bomb threats will remain, Alexander said. Now, she adds, the JCC needs to be vigilante about copycat hate crimes, such as the recent vandalizing of the Jewish cemetery in Rochester. Alexander said she finds comfort knowing the FBI could locate a suspect, even if he was in a small town in Israel.

“This is just a lesson that we are vulnerable — whether it’s a white nationalist or a mentally ill Jewish person,” she added.

It’s unclear if there has been an uptick in Jewish hate crimes since President Donald Trump’s election, Alexander said, or if there’s just been an increase in visibility of the acts due to social media.

Adam Chaskin, executive director of the Albany JCC, said that it may be irresponsible to assume the motives behind the stream of hate crimes until law enforcement discloses them.

Either way, the JCCs in central New York have never faced such violent threats like the ones they have received this year, Alexander said.

Small still thinks Trump’s administration could be doing more to prevent hate crimes across all identities by making more blanket comments, such as preaching religious tolerance. With Trump’s travel ban proposals against Muslim majority countries, he said he believes it shows the administration has done a poor job protecting religious communities.

If hate crimes against religious communities aren’t publicly reprimanded more, Small said it will likely only get worse.

“It’s important to say that out loud, and it’s important for all of us to agree to that, because otherwise it is much more likely that there will be threats like this made against Jewish community centers and other community centers and other places of worship,” Small said.

Graphics by Emma Comtois | Digital Design Editor

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