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DHS To Help Jewish Community Centers Enhance Security Protocols

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Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department K-9 officers search the Jewish Community Center of Southern Nevada after an employee received a suspicious phone call that led about 10 people to evacuate the building on Feb. 27. Jewish institutions across the nation have received more than 120 bomb threats in the past two months

The Department of Homeland Security is stepping up its support for Jewish institutions across the nation who've received more than 120 bomb threats in the past two months. Jewish Community Centers have been pressing for help as they've been targeted by waves of threatening calls as well as vandalism.

Since January, the calls coming in to JCCs have been both vivid and unnerving. Betzy Lynch, executive director of the JCC in Birmingham, Ala., got three of the threatening calls, all very similar.

"It is a very disguised sort of digitized voice that indicates that there's a bomb in the building, and then there's some pretty horrific rhetoric about hurting Jewish people," she says.

The calls have thrust JCCs around the nation into repeated evacuations. Elderly women doing water aerobics and babies in daycares have been rushed out to the streets, and whole communities have been rattled.

"Everybody's no more than one or two degrees of separation from someone whose kid ended up on a sidewalk in front of a JCC over the last couple of weeks," says Jeremy Burnton, the head of Boston's Jewish Community Relations Council.

He says the current uptick in anti-Semitism is particularly disconcerting to younger Jews.

"Frankly, it's bit of a shock," Burnton says. "And maybe we are a bit naive, but we sort of maybe assumed that it was something we had mostly left behind."

Jewish leaders across the nation who've been frustrated that the threats have gone on so long have been calling on the federal government to do more to help protect their institutions.

Two hundred leaders joined a conference call Wednesday with the DHS that ended with officials promising more support. That will include assessing where JCCs are vulnerable to helping them improve security.

Bob Kolasky, the acting deputy under secretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate at DHS, says JCCs will be trained on everything from dealing with an active shooter to managing the current bomb threats that seem to be intended to cause more fear than harm.

"The advice that we will give is how do you deal with something you think is probably not likely to come to fruition," he says. "We're not going to tell an organization not to evacuate, but we're also going to teach them some of the telltale signs that may help make that decision."

Lynch says the federal expertise will go a long way to help secure JCCs like hers in Alabama.

"This outreach is unprecedented, and it's much, much appreciated," she says.

She also hopes it will help reassure members and even persuade some families who've left in fear to return.

"I think that feeling of knowing that this really is not OK with people reassures us that while we're in a difficult period, the federal government has decided that they're standing with us as well," she says.

But others were more circumspect.

The Anti-Defamation League calls the federal support an important step forward, but insists more must be done, including new federal policies that will crack down on hate crimes more broadly.

Many Jewish leaders are also imploring the federal government to expand efforts to find the perpetrators.

"In the end, the only response that's going to be adequate for us is catching these guys," says Mark Sokoll, CEO at Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston. Authorities should do more so that "these people who are filled with hate can be brought to justice, and this can stop," he says.

In the meantime, security is tight at Jewish institutions — like it was at a Boston event Wednesday.

"I mean, look at this synagogue," says Helene Weitzenkorn, an attendee. "They are checking people going in here. I've never seen them have even a metal detector."

She calls the current climate of anti-Semitism palpable.

"I mean, I'm almost 64, and I have just never felt this scared," she says.

Others took a longer view, noting anti-Semitism's long history. The echos are disturbing, as one put it. But they're also a reminder that this too shall pass.

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