Bomb threat hoaxes hit numerous communities in region

Interrupting the Shabbat morning service at Agudath Israel-Etz Ahayem in Montgomery on Dec. 16. Twitter screenshot.

The weekend of Dec. 15 saw an acceleration of bomb threats at synagogues and Jewish institutions across the country, including in the Deep South.

The Secure Communities Network, which is the umbrella security agency for Jewish communities nationally and has representatives in Birmingham and New Orleans, counted 199 threats in a 24-hour period on Dec. 16, in at least 17 states. By the end of the weekend, the number of incidents was over 400, in 30 states.

None of the threats were seen as credible. According to ABC News, the Federal Bureau of Investigations says that the email threats are connected, and are originating from outside the United States. Over 30 of the 56 field offices are investigating the threats.

Oren Segal, Vice President of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, told CNN that while the threats were deemed hoaxes, “we don’t have the luxury to ignore them.”

Many congregations in the region had also received bomb threats shortly after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. In a couple of cases, the threats were found some time later in a spam folder.

In Central Alabama, six of the seven Jewish institutions received threats on Dec. 16. Agudath Israel-Etz Ahayem in Montgomery evacuated the building in the middle of Shabbat services.

Phil Ensler, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama and a newly-elected state legislator, posted video of everyone being told to leave in the middle of the Torah service. After the building was cleared by law enforcement, they returned to finish the service.

“This is exhausting,” Ensler tweeted. “I pray for the day that we can worship and live in peace.”

Local police checked facilities in Auburn, Montgomery, Dothan and Selma. The only organization that did not receive a threat was Auburn Hillel, which does not have a physical location.

Huntsville’s Temple B’nai Sholom also reported receiving a threat.

At Beth Israel in Jackson, the semi-annual congregational meeting on Dec. 17 was held on Zoom “due to events that occurred at the Temple this morning,” according to an email that went out a couple of hours before the meeting was to begin. The congregation, which also houses the offices of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, received an emailed bomb threat.

Beth Israel cancelled religious school, was told by the FBI that the threat was seen as not credible, and local law enforcement did its bomb threat protocol.

On Dec. 14, bomb threats were investigated at synagogues in Tupelo and Columbus.

Tallahassee, Savannah and Nashville also had threats.

On Nov. 30, Mountain Brook Police responded to what turned out to be a “swatting” call against Bais Ariel Chabad. A caller to a national suicide hotline reported an active shooter situation at Chabad, which was a hoax intended to prompt a large-scale law enforcement response to an unsuspecting victim. Swatting calls against Jewish institutions have also seen a dramatic rise this year.

The incidents extended outside the Jewish community, as Baldwin County, Ala., police reported visiting a “messianic” congregation in Daphne following a threat there on Dec. 16.

Most synagogues have security guards or off-duty police officers every time the doors open, leading to large financial outlays. Some congregations in the region have instituted surcharges from $100 to $300 per member family to cover the added costs, or have cut back the number of days per week that the office is open.