An inside look into how the JCC responded to a bomb threat

Paul Lurie
Paul Lurie (Courtesy of the JCC of Greater Baltimore)

At around 1 a.m. on May 15, the JCC of Greater Baltimore received a bomb threat through the info page of its website, said Paul Lurie, chief operations officer of the JCC of Greater Baltimore and a resident of Pikesville. The threat, first noticed by JCC staff sometime after 8 a.m., contained no specific demands. Rather, it spoke of Jews in a particularly negative light and warned of some form of harm coming to the JCC.

JCC staff soon notified local police of the situation, as well as its onsite security team and Keith Tiedemann, a security consultant for the local Jewish community, Lurie said. After the police arrived, the decision was made to begin an evacuation procedure, starting before 9:30 a.m.

As the Weinberg Park Heights JCC is typically closed on Saturdays, there were fewer than five staff members who needed to evacuate that location at the time. However, on that particular day, the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC had between 600 to 700 people on the premises, many of whom had come for a dance competition being held at The Gordon Center.

In addition to making an evacuation announcement over the intercom, JCC staff members and security team members — the latter are contracted from outside security companies — walked through the building, ensured people were evacuating and answered their questions about what was happening. Staff members used intentionally nonspecific language about a “credible security threat” when evacuating, partly in order to avoid a panic. The evacuation took about 10 minutes at the Owings Mills facility, while the evacuation of the Park Heights facility took perhaps 30 seconds.

Lurie arrived on the scene just around the time that the evacuation of the Owings Mills facility was being completed, he said.

A decision was made to do a sweep of the Owings Mills facility, Lurie said. Small teams — consisting of staff members, security contractors and police officers — were assembled to go through the JCC. Lurie noted that while staff members were more familiar with the building, police officers had a better understanding of what to look for regarding potential threats, allowing each team to inspect a room from multiple perspectives.

After being told the sweep of the Owings Mills facility could take a couple of hours, most of the members left the premises, said Lurie. The sweep of the Owings Mills facility was completed by around 11:15 a.m. A sweep of the Park Heights facility, which had staff members partnering with police to inspect the facilities, was completed earlier in the day.

When he first learned of this particular bomb threat, Lurie said his initial reaction was one of disappointment but not surprise. He viewed it as part of a pattern that JCCs and other Jewish organizations around the country have been experiencing in recent months.

“The language in some of these threats is obviously pretty antisemitic, and it’s always disheartening to see that there are people in the world who feel that way,” Lurie said.

The JCC of Greater Baltimore has been in contact with other JCCs on the issue, as well as with organizations dealing with security at Jewish institutions, Lurie said. He noted that the language and the type of threat the JCC of Greater Baltimore received was consistent with what other JCCs had seen, and he added that all of those had been found to not be credible.

“It was also very similar language within the threat itself,” noted Lurie, who is Jewish. “[In terms of] antisemitic language, in terms of some of the terminology used, some of the Nazi references. It was very similar in that respect.”

Howard Libit
Howard Libit (courtesy)

Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, noted that The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore invests heavily, both in resources and time, into the security of the JCCs and all the institutions in its system.

“Every time there’s an incident, whether it’s here or somewhere else in the nation, we review and see whether there are additional steps we need to take,” Libit said in an email.

“I can confidently tell parents and others who use our JCCs that security is a top priority,” Libit continued. “We take it seriously every single day.”

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