Park Heights JCC Briefly Evacuated After Bomb Threat

The Park Heights JCC, which houses the Meyerhoff Early Childhood Center, was briefly evacuated on Monday after a bomb threat was called in. (Daniel Nozick)

The Park Heights JCC was briefly evacuated on Monday after a phoned-in bomb threat, which proved to be unfounded.

The building was cleared after the phone call came in at 11:45 a.m. and was reopened shortly after 2 p.m., once the threat was found to be unsubstantiated.

That same day, bomb threats were called in to 16 JCCs in nine states. All were unsubstantiated.

In Baltimore, staff immediately alerted security personnel and began to take appropriate security measures, alerting the building manager and executive team.

After a quick consultation with JCC security and the police, evacuation procedures began for the Park Heights JCC and the other building that shares its campus — which houses several Jewish agencies — within minutes of the phone call.

“From when we actually put the evacuation into place until the last person evacuated the building took about five minutes, which fits right into where our security protocol is for this building,” said Paul Lurie, chief operations officer for the JCC of Greater Baltimore.

The Baltimore Police Department is investigating the incident with its federal partners, according to Det. Jeremy Silbert.

The Bender JCC of Greater Washington, which also received a bomb threat, was evacuated and reopened at 1:30 p.m. Monday.

“We have talked to the police and our full-time security consultant who made us aware of some of the other incidents that had happened after we completed our evacuation,” Lurie said. “The police are aware of the incidents around the country and do feel that there is a connection between them. We looked at it as an individual situation for the safety of our members and the people within the building and enacted our evacuation procedure.”

By 4:30 p.m. on Monday, authorities’ investigations of the impacted JCCs all resulted in all-clear findings, with most JCCs resuming regular operations, according to David Posner, director of strategic performance at the JCC Association of North America.

On Wednesday, officials from the FBI and Homeland Security conducted a conference call with U.S. Jewish communal leaders to discuss Monday’s incidents, what they stem from and how to craft protocols to handle such incidents in the future. Some communities already receive federal grants to provide for security.

While the FBI would not confirm whether they were investigating the string of incidents, spokeswoman Carol Cratty said the bureau was aware of them.

“We remain in touch with our law enforcement partners to provide assistance if needed,” she wrote in a statement. “As always, we encourage the public to remain vigilant and to promptly report suspicious activities which could represent a threat to public safety.”

Last week, bomb threats were called in to Jewish institutions in Florida, Georgia and New Jersey, according to the ADL.

“Unfortunately, such threats are not new to the Jewish community,” ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt said in a prepared statement. “While each of these threats must be taken seriously, and excellent preparation is key to a good response, bomb threats are most often not credible and are usually used as scare tactics in order to disrupt an institution’s operations and to cause fear and panic. At this juncture, none of these threats appear to be credible.

“We have also been in touch with Jewish institutions across the country to notify them of these threats and urge them to take this opportunity to always ‘think security’ by reviewing their security policies and procedures.”

The string of threats included a combination of robocalls and actual people calling, all of which were intended to put a scare into Jewish communities according to Paul Goldenberg, the director for the Secure Community Network (SCN), which works with the Jewish Federations of North America to oversee the safety of American Jewish institutions.

“We have seen over the past 18 months an uptick in domestic terrorism and that people will use tactics with regard to terrifying communities,” Goldenberg said. “They are looking to instill fear, and that’s their primary goal.”

Goldenberg said the FBI is investigating the incidents and that people should never hesitate to contact local and national authorities.

At the Park Heights JCC, evacuation procedures have members leave the campus and staff evacuate to a nearby location so that they can still be available if needed; students at the Meyerhoff Early Childhood Center are evacuated to a secure off-site facility, Lurie said.

Before the building was reopened to the public, JCC staff did a final walk-through with Baltimore City police officers. They completed the sweep with no suspicious activity or threat found.

“We take security seriously as you can see,” said Annette Saxon, chair of the board of the JCC of Greater Baltimore. “We have drills and practice our protocol for these type of things all of the time, so when — God forbid — something does come up like this, that’s why [an evacuation] happens so quickly and seamlessly. Our members know that it is safe. Our professionals know what they are doing.”

Mathew Klickstein contributed to this report.

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