Fair Lawn’s Ahavat Achim evacuated.
The last two months have seen a large increase in bomb threats at houses of worship across the country, with Bergen and Essex County shuls among them. According to the Anti-Defamation League, 49 synagogues in 13 states have received bomb-threat calls since mid-July. Over Rosh Hashanah, five synagogues were targeted on Long Island alone.
On the Thursday night prior to Rosh Hashanah, Ahavat Achim, an Orthodox shul in Fair Lawn, was targeted. A bomb threat was anonymously called in to local police, with the claim that two pipe bombs in a black backpack were inside the synagogue. The police responded quickly, evacuating the few people who were inside and cordoning off the surrounding area until it was determined that all was clear.
In an email exchange with The Jewish Link, the shul’s rabbi, Rabbi Ely Shestack, expressed gratitude to law enforcement officials for their rapid response. He also thanked Mayor Kurt Peluso and local representatives Lisa Swain and Chris Tully, who each reached out personally to express their support.
He went on to reflect on the timing of these attacks: “For generations our people have met various forms of oppression and persecution. We have a history of taking these traumatic incidents and attempts to scare—or worse harm—us and turn those efforts towards Hashem. We encouraged the congregation on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, and encourage the community at large, to use this fear and sanctify it by channeling it towards the trepidation of standing directly before the Almighty.”
He added, “The threat came right before the holiday when we commemorate the creation of the world and pray for the dominion of Hashem over the entire world. It’s sad that Judaism could be so misunderstood as to threaten and perhaps to scare us away from saying those tefillot. Thankfully, the efforts were entirely futile as we had full attendance on both days of Rosh Hashanah.”
Congressman Josh Gottheimer, when asked to comment about the rash of threats, was decidedly more blunt. ”I’m disgusted and outraged by these terroristic threats against Jersey families seeking to worship freely and safely. To the cowards who made these threats, we will never back down—religious freedom will win and antisemitism and hate will lose. I ask everyone to please stay vigilant and continue to look out for one another.”
In an email exchange with The Jewish Link, Tim Torell, director of Jewish Community Security for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, noted that in mid-August he had sent a community security alert via the NNJ Alert mass communication system which allows him to have instant communication with the leaders of over 100 synagogues, day schools and other community agencies in the Northern New Jersey area. He explained that it was in response to “these types of crimes which have primarily targeted the Jewish community … and these are crimes, which aim to harass, terrorize and disrupt those who merely want to worship on Shabbat and during the High Holidays.”
In his very recent follow up High Holiday security alert, he assured recipients, writing, “Please know that our Jewish Communal Security network is working closely with all levels of law enforcement in this ongoing criminal investigation, and, as always, extra police patrols will be in place to ensure a safe and peaceful holiday season.
On a national level, Evan Bernstein, CEO of Community Security Service (CSS)—a nonprofit security group of 3000 trained volunteers servicing the Jewish community—also spoke of his organization’s close ties to local law enforcement agencies to help ensure the safety of congregations across the U.S. Those relationships are critical. In fact, there have been several occasions in recent years where volunteers were able to identify suspects, leading to arrests.
Referencing the current holiday season, he noted, “As we approach Yom Kippur, a time of reflection, unity and prayer, we are deeply troubled to have to address the swatting bomb threats directed at synagogues across our nation. These incidents strike at the very heart of our faith, our values and our collective sense of safety. While these threats weigh heavily on our hearts, let us not be deterred from observing the High Holidays with the reverence and devotion they deserve.”
One such swatting incident occurred in Essex County on Friday evening, September 15. MIllburn police responded to a call saying that a bomb had been placed in the Temple B’nai Jeshurun building. Rosh Hashanah services had just begun, and the synagogue had to be evacuated as a precaution as the bomb squad was called to check and clear
the building with its K9 unit. Ultimately, the threat was found not to be credible. The incident is being investigated by multiple agencies,
and there were reportedly other swatting incidents in New Jersey last week as well.
Swatting—for those unfamiliar with the term—is loosely defined as hoax calls made directly to local police departments or other agencies with the intent to harass and intimidate by disrupting religious services. It also takes first responders away from actual emergencies. Of note is that many of these incidents have been directed at synagogues that live-stream their Shabbat services, allowing the perpetrators to watch the response in real time. An evacuated synagogue is considered a victory for them.