NEW YORK (Reuters) - The arrest in Israel on Thursday of a U.S.-Israeli teenager suspected of a rash of hoax bomb threats targeting Jewish community centers across the United States brought some relief to community leaders, who nevertheless say they will stick to plans to beef up security.
Executives at several Jewish organizations said the threats helped identify potential vulnerabilities that must be addressed, regardless of whether the suspect is ultimately found to have been behind the bulk of the incidents.
Planned changes include improvements to physical infrastructure such as cameras and restricted entrances; additional security staff; and increased training.
“Whether or not this suspect turns out to be responsible for the threats specific to this center is irrelevant,” said Brian Greene, executive director of Westside Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles, which has received two threats since February. “We want to make sure we are a safe space.”
Israeli authorities have not identified the 18-year-old arrested on Thursday but said he has dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship.
The threats, which included five separate waves of calls starting in early January, forced evacuations at dozens of JCCs, including some with day care and school facilities. The JCC Association of North America has tracked 133 threats in 36 states and Canada in 2017.
JCCs are open to everyone, and several have memberships that are majority non-Jewish. But Jewish leaders said an apparent rise in anti-Semitism beyond the specific JCC threats, including desecration of Jewish cemeteries and painting of swastikas in schools, has helped bolster the case that enhanced security is needed.
“Building a security culture is not new to this community,” said Paul Goldenberg, national director of the Secure Community Network, a nonprofit organization set up in 2004 to provide security training to Jewish groups.
JCC leaders also said the sheer volume of the threats made them unlike anything seen in decades, if ever.
“It’s really unique,” said David Posner, who oversees the JCC Association’s security outreach to local centers. “It’s unprecedented, the scale of it.”
Since the threats began, the Secure Community Network has helped the U.S. Department of Homeland Security deploy about 100 experts to various JCCs to offer advice. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have also visited centers to provide training.
Meanwhile, individual JCCs are beefing up security. The JCC in New York state capital Albany, for instance, closed one of its two entrances, installed a new desk that allows a better view of the front door and added another staff member there.
At the JCC of Syracuse, also in New York state, workers will soon install an inner security door controlled by a guard, rather than letting people walk freely in and out of the building.
“I think the amount of anti-Semitism that we’re seeing around the world has made us more aware,” said Marci Erlebacher, the center’s director.
The Levite JCC in Birmingham, Alabama, has launched a $1 million emergency fundraising campaign to pay for security improvements at Jewish institutions throughout the city. The center is also taking steps to restrict access at its entrances and install more advanced cameras.
The Westside JCC in Los Angeles started its own security fundraising campaign, raising $50,000 in the first two days.
JCCs are also reviewing safety procedures, such as evacuation protocols that call for changing up exits or gathering spots in case a threat is a pretext.
“The chances of there being an actual bomb are less than 1 percent,” said Betzy Lynch, the director of the Birmingham center. “The chance that someone is trying to get us to evacuate to do something else is greater.”
Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by James Dalgleish