Virginia synagogue undeterred by bomb threat

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Congregation Ner Shalom in Woodbridge
Congregation Ner Shalom in Woodbridge (Photo courtesy of Congregation Ner Shalom)

Congregation Ner Shalom in Woodbridge, Va. has seen anti-Semitism in the past. But in her years at the Reform synagogue, congregant Jillian Perry of Manassas has never experienced anything quite like this.

On Aug. 21, the Prince William County Police released a statement describing a voicemail that was left on Ner Shalom’s voicemail containing “inappropriate language and the threat of a bomb.” No charges have been made and the investigation is ongoing, according to Public Information Officer Renee Carr.


Perry, who serves as congregation’s vice president of membership, was the one who reported the incident to police. The synagogue has an electronic system that notifies selected congregants via email whenever a voicemail is left on the building’s phone. Perry was about to hop in to her jeep to pick up her grandchild from childcare when she got the email. Perry said she was “obviously upset” and felt a “great sense of urgency” upon hearing the voicemail.

Immediately, she made a call to Acting Chief of Police Jarad Phelps. Perry serves on the department’s Citizen’s Advisory Board and is acquainted with police personnel. In the call, Perry agreed to come into the station in order to file a report.

Perry said she’s been a member of Ner Shalom since age 3, and in that time the synagogue has never experienced a threat to hurt congregants or blow up the synagogue.

“We’ve never had that threat level,” Perry said. “So it was definitely a shock.”

Rabbi Lizz Goldstein described the voices in the recording as giggling and on the younger side. Despite this, she, along with Perry, said it’s still important to take these kinds of incidents seriously. An example of a teen harming people Perry gave was the recent Kenosha shooting where 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly shot dead two protestors.

“Unfortunately with today’s world, we honestly don’t know if it’s just some kid in a basement that had nothing better to do with his time,” Perry said. “Or if it’s somebody just like the shootings in Wisconsin. You don’t expect a 17-year-old to go armed into [a protest and shoot people], but he did.”

Goldstein didn’t believe congregants were in any physical danger in regards to the bomb threat as its building has been mostly unused since the pandemic. A police K-9 search of the area did not turn up any explosives and there was no indication that anyone had been on site from the synagogue’s security cameras footage.

Goldstein said she is more concerned that whoever left the voicemail would try to “Zoom Bomb” or harass congregants on synagogue live streams. This has happened a few times since the pandemic. In one incident, an unknown individual played “pornographic audio” during a Ner Shalom-related livestream.

“I don’t want to trivialize it because, of course, any threat needs to be taken seriously,” Goldstein said. “And even if they were young kids who thought it was a joke, who knows what else they would think is a joke, graffiti or possibly even an act of violence.”

In the aftermath of the voicemail, Perry said the congregation has received an outpour of support from the local faith community.

“One thing I can say that I’m actually very proud of is Prince William County as a whole has always had a very strong interfaith community. And this incident was no different,” Perry said. “We’re actually heard from practically every community here just to see if we need anything, if we’re OK.”

Goldstein said she doesn’t expect this to be the last anti-Semitic incident the congregation will ever experience. Aside from the Zoom Bombing and the bomb threat, the congregation has also seen anti-Semitic comments left on their Facebook live streams since the pandemic.

“Anti-Semitic threats are as old as Judaism itself, and we’re still here,” Goldstein said. “But we still need to always be vigilant.”

 

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