Threats target Anti-Defamation League, other Bay Area Jewish groups

SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) -- Bomb threats on Monday targeted three Bay Area Jewish organizations in San Francisco, Marin County and Palo Alto, prompting evacuations and the closure of busy Market Street during the evening rush hour commute.

The evacuations came after some 20 similar threats targeted Jewish centers in 13 states nationwide earlier Monday morning.

Staffers at the Anti-Defamation League offices, which are located at 720 Market Street between Grant and Kearny streets, said an employee answered the phone and heard a man's voice about 4:20 p.m.

KTVU had just arrived at the office building to do an interview with the ADL about recent anti-Semitic attacks and saw the first police responders.

"They said that they had a bomb, that they had planted a bomb and they planned to kill us," said Seth Brysk, the Anti-Defamation League's Central Pacific Region Director.

Police decided to evacuate the building and also closed the streets in the area as a precaution. Motorists were urged to avoid the area while police investigated the incident.

"We responded (and) we blocked off the street, evacuated the buildings including the entire block for safety reasons," said Police Captain Teresa Ewins.

Officers brought in a bomb-sniffing dog to go through the floors in the building and told neighboring tenants to leave or shelter in place.

"It was about 5 o'clock and then, the officer closed the sidewalk," said Liao Chin, who works next door at the coffee shop Mazarin.

At nearly the same time, the Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael was being evacuated for a similar bomb threat, as well as the JCC in Palo Alto.

Just hours earlier, the Anti-Defamation League had issued a nationwide security advisory to Jewish Community Centers after a new string of bomb threats were received Monday morning.

"We think the Department of Justice, the Department of Education, Homeland Security, can all work tgother on an interagency task force to be able to address these concerns," Brysk said.

In San Francisco, police cleared the buildings and reopened the street about 7 p.m. In Palo Alto, the police cleared the JCC about 7:15 p.m.

Brysk said along with the criminal investigation, there needs to be more education efforts nationwide.

"Hate is something that is learned and if it can be learned than it can be unlearned. And we want to see America be a place where everyone is welcome," Brysk said.

Since Jan. 1, ADL officials said the group has received reports of more than 90 incidents in 30 states and Canada.

The FBI is assisting with some of those investigations.

The incidents in the Bay Area seem to be two of at least 20 such reports around the country Monday, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

"One threat or evacuation is one too many, and yet we’ve now seen more than 20 incidents in a single day not just to ADL, but to children's schools and community centers -- and more than 90 incidents since the start of this year,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, chief executive officer of the ADL in a written statement. "The level of threats and incidents is astounding, and must not stand. We will do everything in our power to combat this wave of anti-Semitism."

Jewish centers and schools across the nation are grappling with a wave of bomb threats as officials in Philadelphia made plans to repair and restore hundreds of vandalized headstones at a Jewish cemetery.

Jewish Community Centers and day schools in at least a dozen states received threats, according to the JCC Association of North America. No bombs were found. All 21 buildings -- 13 community centers and eight schools -- were cleared by Monday afternoon and had resumed normal operations, the association said.

It was the fifth round of bomb threats against Jewish institutions since January, prompting outrage and exasperation among Jewish leaders as well as calls for an aggressive federal response to put a stop to it.

"The Justice Department, Homeland Security, the FBI, and the White House, alongside Congress and local officials, must speak out -- and speak out forcefully -- against this scourge of anti-Semitism impacting communities across the country," said David Posner, an official with JCC Association of North America. "Members of our community must see swift and concerted action from federal officials to identify and capture the perpetrator or perpetrators who are trying to instill anxiety and fear in our communities."

The FBI and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division are probing the threats.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the vandalism and bomb threats serious, unacceptable behavior and said the department will "do what it can to assist in pushing back ... and prosecuting anybody that we can prove to be a part of it."

"We are a nation that is a diverse constituency, and we don't need these kind of activities," Sessions said.

In Philadelphia, police investigated what they called an "abominable crime" after several hundred headstones were damaged during the weekend at Mount Carmel Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery dating to the late 1800s, said Steven Rosenberg, chief marketing officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

Police said the vandalism appeared to be targeted at the Jewish community, though they cautioned they had not confirmed the motive. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said authorities were doing everything possible to find those "who desecrated this final resting place." 

"I'm hoping it was maybe just some drunk kids," said Aaron Mallin, who discovered the damage during a visit to his father's grave. "But the fact that there's so many, it leads one to think it could have been targeted," he told WPVI-TV.

The vandalism comes less than a week after a Jewish cemetery in suburban St. Louis was targeted. More than 150 headstones there were damaged, many of them tipped over.

Both acts of vandalism spurred offers of help.

The Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council, an umbrella group for more than 50 union locals that work in the construction industry, offered to repair the damage at Mount Carmel free of charge, calling it a "cowardly act of anti-Semitism that cannot be tolerated." A community cleanup organized by the Jewish Federation was to begin Tuesday with as many as 50 volunteers per hour.

And in Missouri, a Muslim crowdfunding effort to support the vandalized Jewish cemetery near St. Louis had raised more than $136,000 by Monday, with organizers announcing they would use some of the money for the Philadelphia cemetery.

Monday's bomb threats caused no physical damage but were no less worrisome.

"There's plenty of people who are scared," said Rosenberg, who denounced the hoaxsters as "an embarrassment to civilized society."

Some 200 people were evacuated from a Jewish Community Center in York, Pennsylvania, after a caller told the front desk there was a bomb in the building, said Melissa Plotkin, the York JCC's director of community engagement and diversity. Police entered the building and cleared it, she said.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, who has long ties to the York center, having served on its board, called the bomb threats and cemetery vandalism reprehensible.

"These acts are cowardly and disturbing," Wolf told reporters in a conference call Monday. "We must find those responsible and hold them accountable for these hate crimes."

Jewish centers and schools in Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Virginia also were threatened, according to the JCC Association of North America.

Since January, the group has tracked a total of 90 incidents in 30 states and Canada.

Paul Goldenberg, director of the Secure Community Network, a nonprofit founded by several national Jewish groups to bolster security in the Jewish community, said Jewish Community Centers and other Jewish institutions have extensive security protocols in place. 

After dealing with Monday's threats, he said, the "Jewish community is back in business."

KTVU reporter Jana Katsuyama, the Associated Press and Bay City News contributed to this report.

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