What Jews Can (and Cannot) Learn from the JCC Bomb Threats

In the middle of the morning on February 20, 2017, nursery school teachers at the St. Paul Jewish Community Center (JCC) calmly began lining up their students to go outside. Instead of loosing the kids to play freely on the Center’s playground, as they usually did, the teachers led their students on a walk down the block and around the corner to Fire Station 19. Firefighters backed one of their trucks out of the stationhouse and teachers began seating the 200 young children on mats where the truck usually parked. The kids watched with rapt attention as the firefighters donned their gear and demonstrated how they get ready to go put out fires. 

For the kids, the visit to Station 19 was a diversion from the usual routine of their days. For their teachers, it was making the best of a scary situation. At around 10:00 AM, the JCC had received a phoned-in bomb threat similar to the robo-calls that 65 other JCCs and Jewish institutions had received since January 4. Staff immediately evacuated children and adults from the building.

After a thorough search of the building, the St. Paul Police Department’s bomb squad deemed the call a hoax. Within a few hours, media reported that the St. Paul JCC was one of 12 JCCs—stretching from Buffalo, NY to Albuquerque, NM—that received the robo-calls that morning. The city’s two newspapers, public radio affiliate, and television news stations all carried the story, with many featuring quotes from Steve Hunegs, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. “To see the JCC having to evacuate is very sad,” said Hunegs, “and unfortunately a reflection of the times in which we now live.”

The mainstream news media’s coverage of the threats against Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) brought more attention to the institution in the first three months of 2017 than perhaps ever before in the 140 year history of the JCC movement. In total, 85 JCCs received at least one hoax call before the suspected perpetrator was arrested on March 23. Between January 1 and March 22, news outlets posted almost 6,000 articles online about the Jewish Community Center.[1] Despite constant news of dysfunction in Washington and hate crimes against immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and people of color, the media took notice as week after week, JCCs across the United States evacuated their buildings to search for the threatened explosives.

Leaders within and outside the Jewish Community quickly spoke out to condemn anti-Semitism. The assumption running throughout these statements, sometimes expressed implicitly and other times explicitly, was that the blame for the threats lay with bigots, white nationalists, neo-fascists, and other ideologies at the populist fringes of the alt-right. Commentators expressed a similar view. Elissa Strauss at Slate, whose child attended preschool at a JCC, walked the line between condemnation and accusation when she wrote: “For many on the alt-right, the taunts and threats they issue—possibly including the ones aimed at the JCCs—are an elaborate practical joke.” A wave of cemetery desecrations and neo-Nazi activity bolstered this assumption.

The increasing, and increasingly visible, anti-Semitism of internet harassment and vandalism and bomb threats provoked insecurity, discomfort, and fear within Jewish communities. After police declared the call to the St. Paul JCC a hoax, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Councilman Chris Tolbert released a statement that acknowledged the emotional toll of the threat. “While no one was physically hurt,” they wrote, “we know that it will take time for you [the affected families] and your children to feel safe.” Since the idea of a “tri-faith” Protestant-Catholic-Jewish America emerged after World War II, Jews living in the United States have navigated a place for themselves within the country’s social mainstream. This inclusion has not always felt secure or comfortable, and some Jews have retained a feeling of outsiderness; Jews nonetheless sought and achieved inclusion for its economic and social benefits. With the rise of anti-Semitism, however, Jews now find themselves amidst marginalized groups with whom they rarely identified prior to the 2016 presidential campaign: Muslims, refugees, Mexicans and Latinxs.

Compounding the feeling of insecurity was the sense that Americans—particularly the American president—were not standing up against the rising tide of discrimination. This perceived abandonment raised questions amongst Jews about their place in American democracy, and by extension the health of American pluralism. Writing in The Forward, the executive director of the Anne Frank Center For Mutual Respect accused President Trump of ignoring “an epidemic” of anti-Semitism sweeping the United States. Even optimists like Dave Simon, the executive director of the JCC of Greater Albuquerque, expressed some concern about the increasing number of anti-Semitic incidents globally. When interviewed by The Atlantic writer Emma Green, he argued, “This is the best time in history to be a Jew in the United States. Our country is so phenomenal, and Jews have come so far in this country, and we have so many blessings.” He nonetheless felt the need to defend pluralism from assault, adding, “We can’t tolerate anti-Semitism or hate and discrimination against anybody.”

It took many observers by surprise, then, when the suspected perpetrator was arrested in Israel. Michael Kadar, an 19-year-old Israeli-American teenager, has been indicted for phoning in bomb threats to American JCCs—among a slew of other crimes. Over a three-year period, Kadar targeted over 2,000 institutions across the globe, including 142 threats involving air travel, 48 to police stations, and the extortion of Delaware State Senator Ernesto Lopez (R). JCCs and Jewish schools were far from the only targets of Kadar’s terror.

Complicating the indictment, however, is a question about Kadar’s mental fitness. News outlets have reported that the teenager suffers from an inoperable brain tumor that affects his behavior and decision-making. According to Kadar’s lawyers, the impairment caused by the condition is significant enough that the Israeli Defense Force excused Kadar from mandatory military service. This detail, in tandem with the diversity of the perpetrator’s targets, makes it difficult to assess his motivation for targeting Jewish Community Centers to a greater extent than other institutions (Jewish and non-Jewish). Although Kadar’s testimony at trial may eventually reveal a justification, it will be complicated by the question of his ability to reason.

Kadar was not a member of the American alt-right or an anti-Semite, as most people assumed—he is a fellow Jew. Why would a Jew attack Jewish institutions, and why the JCC in particular? What do these threats reveal about Jews’ sense of belonging within broader American society, and even more puzzlingly what do the threats tell us about Jewish acceptance of other Jews within our religion, ethnicity, or culture? 

Without attributing motivations to Kadar, the bomb threats are less contradictory when understood as attacks on pluralism rather than as Jewish anti-Semitism. Indeed, Kadar’s robo-calls raise some interesting questions about the state of pluralism in the United States and within global Jewry. Pluralism for Jews in the United States operates on two levels. Jews benefit first and foremost from American democratic pluralism, the ideal of including all minority groups in the body politic without demanding that they relinquish their independent cultures and identities. Within the Jewish community and intra-Jewish relations, however, pluralism is the idea that all Jews should be welcomed in communal spaces regardless of their affiliation with a religious movement—such as Reform, Conservative, Orthodox—or their lack of affiliation or their secularism. Just as anti-Semites have sought to exclude Jews from American citizenship and society, there are Jews whose concern for the loss of religious traditions and Jewish ethnic identity has also led them to resist American Jewry’s integration into mainstream American society.

The history of the Jewish Community Center is a prime example of how Jews have debated the balance between religious pluralism and American democratic pluralism. JCCs were religiously pluralistic institutions from their origination. In the late nineteenth century, American Jewish communities began establishing local Young Men’s Hebrew Associations (YMHAs) to bring together all of the Jews living in the area under one roof. Regardless of which synagogue a person belonged to, they were invited to become a member of the YMHA. By 1945, there were more than 300 YMHAs and Jewish Community Centers throughout the United States and Canada.[2] As the institution evolved, the JCC came to focus more on Jewish culture than on Judaism—leaving religious activity and education to synagogues and rabbis. The JCC movement especially welcomed Jews that did not practice Judaism or belong to a congregation, believing that these secular members would disengage from the Jewish community if the JCC did not exist to provide them with a non-religious way to affiliate with the group.

The JCC movement’s embrace of a civic, cultural Jewish identity may have made the institution appealing to Jews uninterested in the rituals and prayers of Judaism, but it also made it a constant target of the rabbinate, religious Jews, and traditionalists. In the early 1960s, for example, a number of Conservative rabbis issued a challenge to the JCC movement, arguing that JCCs promoted secularism and did not do enough to foster their members’ identification with Judaism. Leaders of American JCCs found themselves struggling to explain how secular Jews contributed to Jewish survival.

A decade later, the growth of Orthodox Jewish communities in cities like New York flipped the debate. In the 1970s, philanthropists concerned by the declining population of urban Jews pressured the JCC movement to be more inclusive of Orthodox members of their communities. This required downplaying the JCCs’ acceptance of secularism and placing more emphasis on holiday celebrations, Judaic educational content, and the observance of kosher dietary laws.

The question of non-Jewish membership proved even more controversial in the JCC movement. Membership policy differed from agency to agency. Some JCCs strictly excluded non-Jews. Most, however, allowed non-Jews to use their facilities, participate in some or all of their programs, or even join as full members. In the mid-1960s the JCC movement attempted to create a unified policy about whether non-Jews should be allowed to become full members of the JCC. In the context of the Civil Rights Movement, this debate over the value of an inclusive membership policy became deeply polarized. While the majority of JCC stakeholders believed that accepting non-Jews as JCC members would reflect Jews commitment to minority rights and democratic pluralism, others argued that the JCC would not be able to preserve Jewish identity if JCCs began to be filled with non-Jews. What would make the JCC different from any other American civic institution? This tension generated a national controversy within the JCC movement, but ultimately most Centers decided to institute an open membership policy and serve all people living in their local community. As a result, JCCs became small but emblematic American institutions where Jews and non-Jews mixed freely.

Today, there is more consensus and acceptance of the JCC as a pluralistic space—indeed most are very diverse. The JCC of San Francisco reportedly serves 2,000 non-Jews per day.   In the statement released by St. Paul's mayor and city councilman , their remarks acknowledged the diversity of individuals within the JCC when it received the bomb threat: “Our hearts are with the families of the 190 children and their caregivers – people of every faith – who had to be evacuated.” Indeed, non-Jews have claimed the JCC as a valued community institution. Reflecting on the bomb threat phoned into the Levite JCC in Birmingham, Alabama, AL.com columnist Roy Johnson stressed that Jews held a valued place within American democratic pluralism. “Birmingham is as much their (our) hometown as anyone who resides here, works here, sends their children to daycare and school here,” Johnson wrote on February 20, adding, “Some have lived here for generations and are making positive contributions to our city, not trying to rip it apart.”

That the threats received such extensive news coverage also indicates that Americans perceive the JCC as a pluralistic civic space. For non-Jewish, native-born white Americans who may never experience what it means to be a person of color, or a Muslim, or an immigrant or refugee, they could imagine themselves working out at a Jewish Community Center gym or sending their kids to a JCC preschool. Unlike anti-Semitic vandalism of a synagogue or online harassment of Jewish journalists, the JCC bomb threats resonated beyond the Jewish community because the threat extended beyond Jews.

Although a suspect has been arrested and indicted, a sense of insecurity lingers within the Jewish community. Safety has always been a concern for JCCs, but a renewed attention is being paid to the protection of local Centers. The alt-right remains active, and it doesn’t help matters that now fellow Jews also seem to pose a threat of violence. For a small but vocal group of Jews, violence is justified if it achieves the preservation of Jewish identity as they define it. Jewish particularism prioritizes Jewish preservation above pluralism; some particularists insist that the pluralistic mixing of Jews and non-Jews—or of Jews with other Jews who they consider, for reasons of religious practice, to be a corrupting influence—can only lead to the decline of Jewry. Today we see tensions around particularism largely outside the JCC, in struggles over spaces like the kotel, where the Women of the Wall are fighting for equal rights to pray, read torah, and wear tallit, and over the issue of intermarriage, which is currently roiling up controversy in the Conservative movement

In the face of this insecurity, how can Jews preserve the legacy of religious, ethnic, and racial pluralism fostered in institutions like the JCC? It is essential to remember that the leaders of the JCC movement along with the board members, staff, and membership of local JCCs constantly renegotiated what pluralism would look like in their institutions. Religious and ethno-racial pluralism has always been under debate amongst JCC stakeholders, and it’s foolish to think that a consensus will ever exist. Thus, those who value it must always defend pluralism. The work is not only to convince other Americans that Jews belong in this country and contribute to what “makes America great.” The work is also to condemn Jews who eschew pluralism in a misguided attempt to preserve a particular vision of Jewishness.

Thank you to Geraldine Gudefin, Ayelet Brinn, Barry Goldberg, Max Baumgarten, and Cassie Miller for sharing their thoughts and providing editorial assistance as I worked through this piece.

[1] I found 5730 articles by searching Google News for “Jewish Community Center Bomb Threats” and filtering the results for only those articles published between 1/1/2017 and 3/22/2017.

[2] There is no functional difference, after WWII, between Jewish Community Centers and Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Associations. Jewish Community Center just became the more fashionable name to use after the 1940s. Although for the sake of clarity I use JCC exclusively, I mean it to include the many YM- and YWHAs that did not change their name to JCC when it came into common usage after WWII.