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FBI investigating bomb threat at Anchorage Jewish center

  • Author: Chris Klint
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published February 28, 2017

A day after a bomb threat was called in to a Jewish community center in Anchorage, one of more than two dozen around the country to be targeted Monday, staff and students were trying to return to their routines Tuesday.

Anchorage police responded to the Lubavitch Jewish Center of Alaska, which was evacuated at 3:55 p.m. Monday when the threat was called in. A recording of a male voice, listed by caller ID as coming from within the building, claimed a bomb was inside the center and people had 20 minutes to leave.

Responders from the Anchorage Police Department and FBI found no bomb at the building or in vehicles parked nearby, but roughly 40 children were sheltered in a nearby doctor's office where parents were able to pick them up.

The caller's identity and any organizational connection — if any — was unknown Tuesday. Alaska Communications, the landline provider for the center, said it would cooperate with law enforcement, but had not received any requests for assistance from the FBI by Tuesday.

"We do have security measures in place to protect against these scenarios," said Alaska Communications spokeswoman Hannah Blankenship. "Unfortunately, as technology evolves, so do the skills and tactics of those who seek to disrupt it. It is similar to computer hacking — it is a challenge to completely eliminate the threat."

Rabbi Yosef Greenberg said Tuesday at the center he had seen national news reports indicating Jewish centers in at least 10 other states received bomb threats within hours of the one in Anchorage.

CNN reported Tuesday at least 31 bomb threats were made across the United States and two Canadian provinces Monday. Since Jan. 9, 100 bomb threats have been made to Jewish institutions in North America.

"After such an event we are, of course, always nervous," Greenberg said. "We feel upset, we feel a little scared, we try to pick up the pieces together — be strong, try not to let these things make us weak, try to unite and try to face the situation."

FBI investigators had referred the center's questions about the case to its headquarters in Washington, D.C. Greenberg said the FBI in Washington, though, provided few details Tuesday.

"We know that the way it seems, from the amount of centers that got called around the country and got false alarms, that someone is trying to make a political statement and cause fear and chaos," Greenberg said.

No similar bomb threats were phoned in Monday to Congregation Beth Sholom in Anchorage or Congregation Sukkat Sholom in Juneau, representatives of both synagogues said Tuesday.

Rabbi Michael Oblath, at Congregation Beth Sholom, called the threats "abhorrent" to the Jewish community.

"It's shocking when it happens here," Oblath said. "Our experience as a Jewish community, and even as individuals here in Alaska, is that Alaska is a place where people protect each other and care for each other."

Chava Lee, president of the board for Congregation Sukkat Sholom, said her congregation was coordinating with Juneau police to improve security Tuesday.

"I think that we're all trying to keep focused, that we need to be aware," Lee said. "We need to be vigilant; we need to keep our eye on things that are going on, but not let fear overtake us."

Gov. Bill Walker called the threat "deeply unsettling," adding in his prepared statement that he stood with the state's Jewish community in "condemning these cowardly and unacceptable actions."

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said he was gratified to see the support from Alaskans regardless of their creed, adding that "freedom can never bow to fear."

Greenberg said Anchorage residents offered an outpouring of aid and concern to the center and its staff overnight, along with the messages from leaders statewide.

"We are very thankful for that," Greenberg said. "Sen. (Lisa) Murkowski called in this morning to ask how we're doing; Mayor Berkowitz called yesterday on my cellphone."

APD spokesperson Renee Oistad deferred comment on the bomb threat to the FBI Tuesday, noting it was now part of that agency's nationwide investigation.

"Obviously we responded and helped with the evacuation and checking the area," Oistad said.

Both Anchorage and national FBI spokespersons answered questions about the scope of Monday's bomb threats and the status of the investigation with the same emailed statement.

"The FBI and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division are investigating possible civil rights violations in connection with threats to Jewish Community Centers across the country," FBI officials wrote. "The FBI will collect all available facts and evidence, and will ensure this matter is investigated in a fair, thorough, and impartial manner. As this is matter is ongoing, we are not able to comment further at this time."

The Anchorage center has had security in place — including security cameras and locked doors — for at least a year and a half, according to Greenberg, after a mentally unbalanced person approached the Anchorage FBI office and made an unspecified threat against Jewish schools in Anchorage.

The FBI asked the center if it needed additional security Tuesday, and the offer was declined.

"We have office staff sitting by the door, and nobody can go in or out without being checked," Greenberg said.

Despite the previous threat, however, Greenberg said Tuesday's call was different.

"We never really had a real serious threat in the center for 25 years," Greenberg said. "This is the first time it was on that level, and this was the first time we've been connected on the national level."

The Lubavitch Jewish Center corresponded with parents of its schoolchildren overnight Monday by email and Facebook to let them know no bomb had been found, Greenberg said.

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