Dozens of families have withdrawn from the Roth Family Jewish Community Center of Greater Orlando since three waves of bomb threats rocked JCCs across the nation last month.
But the Orlando JCC, the only one targeted in all three waves, and situated in the city where a gunman killed 49 people at a nightclub in June, is a glaring exception.
Across the nation, JCCs have lost few clients and some have even seen enrollments rise, according to a survey of 73 JCCs taken by the JCC Association after the third wave of threats. A fourth threat targeted at least 10 JCCs Monday (Feb. 20)
“The vast majority of JCCs, they are seeing virtually no change in response to the bomb threats,” said David Posner, vice president for strategic performance at the association.
In total, 48 JCCs, including one in Canada, received the threats, anonymous phone calls that promised bloody deaths for Jews.
At three JCCs, a “moderate” number of people withdrew — in the “low teens.” That would include the Sidney Albert Albany JCC in upstate New York, which received threats during the second and third waves, on Jan. 18 and 31.
The remaining 69 JCCs saw between zero and two withdrawals or an increase in enrollment, said Posner.
The bomb threats occurred against a backdrop of rising anti-Semitic hate crimes in the nation and the refusal of President Trump to address the issue or to disavow the anti-Semites who say they are invigorated by his electoral victory.
JCC officials say they do not judge anyone who has withdrawn from a JCC. They do not downplay the anxiety and disruption these phone calls have caused at their centers, founded to nurture Jewish culture, community and spirits, and known for their high-quality preschools.
But they are also grateful for the seeming willingness of the great majority of JCC patrons to continue to learn, exercise and socialize in these hubs of Jewish life, which cater to Jews but also welcome non-Jews.
“This is like a second home not just for me but for my son,” said Sara Kish, whose 2-year-old was evacuated from the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington after a threatening phone call on Jan. 9.
“No one is going to take this away from us.”
On Jan. 9 after the bomb threat was phoned in to the front desk at the Bender JCC, teachers guided their nearly 200 preschoolers out of their classrooms to a safe area stocked with picture books and snacks.
Swimmers left the JCC’s pool wrapped in foil blankets and headed out into 20-degree weather.
The elderly also left the building, abandoning their group exercise class, warm cups of coffee and the social circles that spontaneously form each morning.
No one has withdrawn from the Bender JCC since the phone calls. But Bender CEO Michael Feinstein and officials at JCCs across the continent have tightened security already considered tight compared with most community centers. There are now more surveillance cameras, more bag and identification checks, and fewer unlocked entrances to their buildings.
That heightened attention to safety was not enough for about a dozen families at the Albany JCC. And neither were the answers to 90 minutes of questions that its executive director, Adam Chaskin, fielded from preschoolers’ parents.
“I’m a parent also,” he said. “I’m never going to tell you as a parent you shouldn’t be concerned. But to quote one mother here, ‘Yes, I’m concerned but I also know the JCC has the best and most security of any other preschool in the area.’”
According to Posner, JCCs often see enrollments rise in January, given the number of people who make New Year’s fitness resolutions and want to use JCC gyms and pools. It’s also a popular month to sign up for JCC summer camps.
But the survey — completed by 66 percent of North America’s JCCs — saw enrollments at several JCCs rise beyond their usual January spikes, increases Posner said he couldn’t explain.
The FBI and the Justice Department’s civil rights division are investigating the threats, a task made more difficult by the use of voice-disguising technology by the caller or callers. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency has obtained a recording of one of the threats.
Ora Cohen Rosenfeld, director of Bender’s preschool, said she has tried to put the threats in perspective for parents by noting the relative rarity of violence at a JCC.
Still, gunmen have opened fire at American Jewish institutions several times in past decades, including a 2014 incident in which a neo-Nazi murdered two people outside the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City.
The anxiety parents have expressed to her, Cohen Rosenfeld added, seems to reflect less their fears about the JCC, but of a larger world that feels more dangerous.
“As I said to one mother, are you not going to the airport because there was a shooting at the airport? Are you not going to send your children to public school because we had someone who killed children in a public school?” Cohen Rosenfeld said.
“If you live in that fear, you can’t function in the world. You need to be above that fear so you can raise your children with a sense of security.”
Some of that sense of security has been restored by the responses of people who have never set foot in a JCC.
In the Bender JCC lobby, Feinstein has posted a sampling of the letters and cards decrying the threats and expressing fellowship from neighbors and strangers representing many faiths and of no faith.
“This is actually bringing people together in a way that they haven’t been brought together before,” he said.
“But it’s still troubling that this beneath-the-surface hatred has bubbled to the surface.”
Chaskin, of the Albany JCC, said some historical perspective may help JCC patrons cope.
“For thousands of years people have been trying to scare the Jews and get people to stop being Jewish,” he said.
“It hasn’t worked yet and I don’t expect it’s going to work now either.”