Bomb threat at GJC synagogue

by Tom Beck
Posted 12/21/23

Children attending classes at Germantown Jewish Centre were evacuated last week after the Mt. Airy synagogue received an emailed threat.

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Bomb threat at GJC synagogue


Children attending classes at Germantown Jewish Centre were evacuated last week after the Mt. Airy synagogue received an emailed bomb threat, one that was received by multiple religious institutions across the country, several of which were in the Philadelphia region.

Police searched the synagogue grounds Thursday after being notified by synagogue leaders and found no explosive devices during a thorough sweep of congregation grounds, said Philadelphia area FBI spokesperson Carrie Adamowski in an email. 

No explosives were found at other synagogues that also received bomb threats, Adamowski said. Religious institutions in multiple states also were targeted and received bomb threats, she said.

“Although at this time no explosive devices related to these threats have been found,” Adamowski said, “we continue to work closely with our law enforcement partners and will remain vigilant to protect our communities.”

Adamoski declined to identify other synagogues that received the emailed threats, but the Newtown Police Department in Bucks County issued a press release stating that Shir Ami synagogue in the township also received an emailed threat. Students and teachers were evacuated and returned to the synagogue after no device was found.

Germantown Jewish Centre executive director Nina Peskin told The Local in a phone call that she believes Thursday’s incident was the first time a bomb threat had been sent to the synagogue, at least in recent history. Since Hamas’ attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, she said that she’s noticed an increase in “hostile” emails sent to the organization, although none had reached the level of a serious threat until last week.

She also praised officers from the Philadelphia Police Department’s 14th District, who arrived onsite within approximately three minutes of the 911 call. A K9 unit helped to clear the building. 

“Once the police determined that the building was safe,” Peskin said in an email sent to the synagogue’s members, “the children returned to their classrooms and took their naps.”

The synagogue, Peskin said, has increased its security presence since the increase in antisemitic attacks shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018 - and especially since Oct. 7. Peskin declined to comment on specifics, citing safety precautions, but she said 14th District police have been a “huge help in making us a more secure community.”

The threats have come in the wake of public service announcements issued in October by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security that warned of potential threats in the United States from a variety of actors in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks on Israel. A similar public service announcement was issued just two days before the bomb threats, on Tuesday of last week.

“Since the start of the conflict between Israel and Hamas,” Adamowski said, “there has been an associated increase in the volume and frequency of threats to Americans, especially those in the Jewish, Arab-American and Muslim communities in the United States.”

From Oct. 7 through Dec. 7 of this year, the Anti-Defamation League has recorded 2,031 antisemitic incidents across the country, representing a 337% increase compared to a year ago. In the Philadelphia region alone, the ADL has received more than 300 complaints of antisemitism since Oct. 7.  The organization received a little more than 500 complaints for the entire year of 2022.

Andrew Goretsky, regional director of the ADL’s Philadelphia office, said that his organization has worked with synagogues and other Jewish institutions to review safety protocols. He said that there have been at least 15 bomb threats received this weekend by Jewish institutions in the Philadelphia region. None of them turned out to be credible.

“They need to be sure they’re going over their procedures and policies,” he told The Local in a phone call. “They need to take [threats] seriously even if we’re not aware of credible threats god forbid one of them is real.”

He said that each synagogue has its own safety procedures, and some have even resorted to hiring armed guards.

The rise in antisemitism has made the Jewish community more “on edge” in recent months, Peskin said. However, at least for members of the Germantown Jewish Centre, these recent events have also “made it much more meaningful” to gather for Shabbat services and light Hanukkah candles. These gatherings, she said, are “palpably different” than in previous years.

“It feels like an act of defiance to live a Jewish life,” Peskin said. “The individuals who do this want to take that from us and we are not going to let them…We’re more on edge than before, but we’re displaying a lot of resilience in our gathering.”