NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Anonymous bomb threats on Monday sent fear through Jewish communities around the country, including in the Tri-State Area.
As CBS2’s Ali Bauman reported, 20 bomb threats were called in from community centers in 12 separate states during the day Monday – including multiple locations in New York and New Jersey.
Many of the threats prompted evacuations, but many of the institutions were later declared clear and resumed normal operations.
On Monday night, more bomb threats were reported on the West Coast and in the Southwest – in Washington state, California and Arizona.
We can report there are bomb threats currently happening on the West Coast in Washington State, California and Arizona.
Threats were reported at JCCs in Seattle, Tucson, Scottsdale, and La Jolla, CBS News reported. A bomb threat was also reported at an Anti-Defamation League office in San Francisco.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said earlier Monday that President Donald Trump “continues to condemn these and any other form of anti-Semitic and hateful acts in the strongest terms.”
“From our country’s founding, we’ve been dedicated to protecting the freedom of our citizens’ right to worship,” Spicer said. “No one in America should feel afraid to follow the religion of their choosing freely and openly.”
All the calls came within a couple of hours of each other, CBS2’s Bauman reported. A U.S. law enforcement official told CBS News the threatening phone calls appear to be coordinated and are coming from both within the country and from overseas.
Four Jewish centers within New York state were among those targeted, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has ordered an investigation.
Approximately 100 children, ages 2 to 5, were evacuated from the JCC of Mid-Westchester on the cusp of New Rochelle and Scarsdale while investigators searched the building after police said the center received a robocall bomb threat around 10:30 a.m., Bauman reported.
The all-clear was given just before 1 p.m. After waiting it out in a fire station, dozens of children filed back into the building following the all-clear — blissfully unaware of the threat.
Staffers at the Mid-Westchester JCC said they were prepared for such a thing, because unfortunately, they figured it was only a matter of time.
“One woman, when she left the pool today wrapped in her Mylar blanket, said she was just waiting for our turn,” said Karen Kolodny, executive director of the JCC of Mid-Westchester. “It is unfortunate this is what we’re dealing with.”
Ellen Arad, a Jewish cantor in Westchester County, told 1010 WINS’ Sonia Rincon the threats are scary.
“While I’m horrified by what’s happening, I’m really touched by the outpouring by our Muslim friends and our Christian friends, she said.
“I think it’s really sad. There’s a lot more bomb threats and racism going on,” added Helen Gurny of Scarsdsale.
Evacuations also occurred at centers in Cherry Hill, New Jersey; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Davie, Florida; and Wilmington, Delaware.
Cuomo said JCCs in Tarrytown, Staten Island, New Rochelle and Plainview also received threats on Monday, but it is unclear if they were evacuated.
”It’s a very difficult time,” said Evan Bernstein, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Just because these threats have not been credible, they have a deep effect in the community. It affects people young and old and families and everyone in between, and it is something we must find an answer to.”
“I call that a series of anti-Semitic activities, but that’s for other people to decide what these are,” Kolodny said.
State Sen. Terrence Murphy (R-Hudson Valley) called the threats “despicable and cowardly acts.”
“Whether they were done because of the current political climate or were part of a personal grudge, these appalling acts are completely unacceptable,” Murphy said. “They go against the values of what we stand for as a compassionate, inclusive society that embraces religious tolerance. I condemn these acts of anti-Semitism as well as any acts fueled by prejudice and hatred.”
Cuomo said he is ordering New York State Police to work with federal and local law enforcement to investigate the threats and apprehend those responsible.
“Make no mistake: these reprehensible and cowardly attacks are not limited to the Jewish community. They are assaults on all New Yorkers and I vow that we will do everything in our power to catch those responsible for this wave of hate crimes,” Cuomo said. “I share the pain and the outrage of so many New Yorkers who are affected directly and those who are sickened by watching these attacks unfold. We will not allow anyone to intimidate or strike fear in the state of New York. The full force of government will be brought to bear in these efforts and these perpetrators will be punished.”
Police in Suffolk County said there are no specific threats but they are stepping up patrols at synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and religious institutions out of an abundance of caution.
Nassau County police also said they will continue intensive patrols at all places of worship – temples and JCCs in particular.
Dozens of Jewish centers have received threats since January, and just last week a bomb threat was phoned in to the national headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League in Manhattan.
Back in Westchester County on Monday, it was business as usual once staff got the all-clear from police. They said that was their best defense.
“It’s a fear target. It’s an attempt to make people unsettled and fearful, and we’re not going to let it defeat us,” Kolodny said.
David Posner, director of strategic performance at JCC Association of North America, said the Justice Department, Homeland Security, FBI, White House, Congress and local officials, must speak out against the “scourge of anti-Semitism.”
“Actions speak louder than words,” Posner said. “Members of our community must see swift and concerted action from federal officials to identify and capture the perpetrator or perpetrators who are trying to instill anxiety and fear in our communities.”
A U.S. law enforcement official told CBS News the calls on Monday appeared to be coordinated and coming from both within the U.S. and overseas. The FBI is also investigating whether hacked devices were used.
But as of late Monday, finding an answer to who was behind the threats was something that not even the FBI had been able to do yet.
“Somebody could simply buy a throwaway cell phone from Duane Reade and give us a fake name and now you have a number that can’t be traced back,” said security expert and former FBI agent Manny Gomez. “They could be robots making the calls. There’s mention it could be cloned phones.”
Gomez told CBS2’s Jessica Layton that until the culprits are caught, Jewish organizations would be wise to beef up security.
In New Jersey, the JCC MetroWest is West Orange already doing that — sending a letter to members saying to help offset the increased costs, “We have found it necessary to charge our members a tax-deductible, $36.00 security fee.
“We recognize this request may seem a bit extraordinary; so, it seems, are the times we’re living in,” the JCC MetroWest said.
The West Orange organization received a threat last month.
“It was a really scary thing,” said JCC member Seth Everett.
Everett and other parents have no problem paying more for added peace of mind.
“I just think the biggest thing is the unknown,” Everett said. “You hear about schools and all those tragic stories, and you don’t want to be the one where it’s not the fake threat.”
The most recent wave of threats comes as another Jewish cemetery was targeted by vandals. On Sunday, police in Philadelphia discovered more than 100 headstones vandalized at the Mount Carmel Cemetery. A week before more than 150 headstones were vandalized at a Jewish cemetery in a St. Louis suburb.
“The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil,” the president said this past Tuesday.
But as WCBS 880’s Alex Silverman reported, U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said Trump’s statement last week decrying anti-Semitism was not enough.
“The president understands how to send a strong message,” Lowey said. “Whether it’s on his tweets or on his press conferences, he knows how to send a statement.”