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As I See It: I am still not afraid, but I am concerned

Late at night following the shootings at the Jewish Community Campus and Village Shalom in April 2014, I wrote a column that I was not afraid of being at those places. In the last two weeks, Jewish Community Centers across the country, including our own J at the Jewish Community Campus, have received bomb threats — thankfully none of which were found to be credible. So, I sit here once again writing … and I am still not afraid.

Apparently others aren’t worried either. I’m told the film that drew the biggest crowd at the recent Jewish Film Festival was Sunday night, just four days after the threat.

“We are all concerned about the level of anti-Semitism that continues to exist in our society, and while we remain vigilant for any potential threats, activity and participation levels at our J continue as normal,” said Jim Slyuter, CEO and president.

I can count at least three times in the last 20 years I’ve had to think about such things. First, when my youngest child was attending The J’s Child Development Center, a white supremacist walked into the Los Angeles JCC firing a semiautomatic weapon, wounding five people. I was co-president of the preschool’s parent organization at the time and within a relatively short time we initiated security procedures at the school that are still in place today. At the time, some parents didn’t think security was tight enough. My response then, and it would be the same today, is that you can’t possibly be prepared for every single scenario and if you are that afraid, the only thing you can do is stay in your own home.

The next big scare came 15 years later when another crazy white supremacist, who is now a convicted murderer, shot and killed three people outside the Jewish Community Campus and Village Shalom. This time Homeland Security and the Overland Park police, as well as the security arm of the Jewish Federations of North America, helped our Jewish community craft procedures and protocols for a variety of emergencies. Staffers at our Jewish schools, congregations and agencies were trained to handle a laundry list of possible disasters from weather emergencies to bomb threats. 

Those protocols were used after The J received a bomb threat on Wednesday, Jan. 18. After it was determined that the threat was not credible, The J’s Sluyter emailed members to report that the Overland Park Police Department was on the scene immediately and a comprehensive search was performed. 

“As always, we remain in constant contact with local and national security personnel and law enforcement and we can assure you the safety and security of our members and staff is of the upmost importance. We have security measures in place and are trained and prepared,” Sluyter wrote.

Unlike other communities, when a threat is made to our Jewish Community Center, that threat is actually made to all the agencies located within the Jewish Community Campus building — including our Jewish Federation, Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, Heritage Center, White Theatre, Jewish Family Services, Jewish Community Foundation and Menorah Heritage Foundation. That’s a lot of people, both young and old, who could be affected.

I checked with HBHA Head of School Howard Haas on Monday and he said following the threat, and today, things at the school are normal and both kids and staff feel safe.

“I must say the cooperation between the agencies was extraordinary and the police were here momentarily and everything went as well as we hope it would. It was very positive actually.”

“I was most concerned regarding new staff, especially those people who are not Jewish and had not worked at a Jewish facility before. I made sure I talked with them to see what it was like for them. They said the only emotion that they experienced was anger that people do these things. People feel totally safe,” Haas said.

Is anti-Semitism rising?

It’s the reason why these bomb threats are occurring that has me concerned. I have this feeling that people are angrier these days and they are openly expressing anger and feelings that up until recently were not considered politically correct. I am not the only one who has these thoughts and concerns.

On Monday, the Jerusalem Post posted an editorial about “The shocking rise of antisemitism (sic) in the US.” It begins, “There are no easy answers to antisemitism, humanity’s oldest hatred.”

Following the 2016 election, the Anti-Defamation League “expressed deep concern over ongoing reports of anti-Semitic and other hate incidents in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.”

In a Nov. 14, 2016, press release, Oren Segal, director of ADL’s Center on Extremism, said, “Various extremists and their online supporters, including those associated with the Alt Right, have been emboldened by the notion that their anti-Semitic and racists views are becoming mainstream.”

Many Jewish journalists have been targets of anti-Semitic attacks. I have not been faced with that. But as I sat formulating my views, I reached out to folks on Facebook, offering anonymity, to get a better handle what others are thinking. I discovered that many in our community, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are concerned as well. Yet some, unlike the ADL and the Jerusalem Post, are not convinced that there is an actual rise in anti-Semitism. 

“I wonder if there truly is a rise, or if the haters now feel empowered to come out from under their rocks. The result is not good, of course, but I am not convinced the number has increased,” replied one friend.

Many are unhappy with the tone being used by people who are both for and against the new administration. As one friend described it, “It seems it’s become much easier to justify hating your neighbor.” It’s a thought several people agreed with.

“I will say the public dialogue in general has turned shrill, and I find it most unpleasant. What has happened to respect, goodness and the ability to listen and seek common ground? … This is less a question of hate speech or constitutional protections. It’s a matter of human decency. And THAT should have no political stripe.”

As for the recent threats and upsurge in violence, “There have always been deadly snakes with guns. Thank G-d, they stay under their rocks most of the time! And the bomb threats and vandalism usually turn out to be punks with either too much time on their hands or no supervision by adults.”

So … I continue to believe I am as safe when I am at Jewish institutions around town as I am when I head to the mall or the movie theater or an airport. Today, you need to pay attention to your surroundings virtually everywhere. And I hope I will always be smart enough to follow the mantra “See Something Say Something.” If you see something out of the ordinary, report it to law enforcement officials immediately.

As this is published the day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I close with this, written by Martin Niemoller, who was publicly opposed to Adolf Hitler and spent seven years in Nazi concentration camps. It reminds me to pay attention to the world around me, as well as what people are saying and doing.

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.