FBI investigates credible statewide threats to New Jersey synagogues


Photo by Lainey Deignan

Westfield’s local synagogue Temple Emanu-El

Synagogues across New Jersey were warned on Nov. 3 to “stay alert” as the FBI “received credible information of a broad threat to Jewish houses of worship. The details of the threat were not disclosed by the FBI, but the agency assured residents that investigative processes were well underway.

FBI Newark (@FBINewark) shared on Twitter, “We ask at this time that you take all security precautions to protect your community and facility. We will share more information as soon as we can.”

State Attorney General Matthew Platkin announced that the FBI is working with law enforcement officers throughout New Jersey to increase police presence. Platkin affirmed that there will be heightened patrol in “sensitive areas” with large Jewish populations.

Both federal and local agencies now call upon residents to act with vigilance and report any suspicious activity. Platkin said, “We continue to work together to keep New Jersey safe, and let those who would bring harm to the residents of this state know that New Jersey will not be home to hate, intolerance or violence.”

Synagogues have been warned to remain calm while keeping a heightened state of alert. It has been suggested that each facility employ security plans as a precautionary measure. According to Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Howard Tilman, “We have had a number of upgrades in the physical security of the building. We have also gotten some Homeland Security grants from the state. The state and federal governments have implemented a lot of new programs to help the houses of worship increase their security.”

Additional security for synagogues has not come as a shock to Temple Emanu-El Associate Rabbi Victor Appell. “I would say that while this was a very disturbing event, it wasn’t entirely surprising. That’s because we know that there has been a dramatic rise in antisemitic events [in the United States]. We’re seeing rates of antisemitic incidents that we haven’t seen in decades.” According to Appell, there have been over 2,700 reported antisemitic incidents in the United States over the past year, a 34 percent increase from the preceding year.

Michael Liebermann, president of WHS’ Jewish Culture and Development Club, said, “I feel like threats against the Jewish community are so common that I didn’t really react. They are scary to hear and to see, but I feel like [Jewish residents] have become desensitized a little bit because of the frequency of these threats.”

The Jewish Culture and Development Club has provided a safe space for Jewish students throughout the uptick in hate crimes at WHS within the last year, and now the recent statewide threats. Kimberly Leegan, advisor of the club and social studies teacher, explained that in order to make our Jewish peers feel safe, we must, “wrap our arms around the community. We have to realize that when any of this is said about anyone in our community, it is said against all of us, and we have to speak out strongly against it.”

These threats closely follow the latest controversies surrounding Kanye West and Kyrie Irving involving antisemitic beliefs. West recently went on a spree of interviews spouting antisemitic comments, death threats and conspiracy theories. Shortly after, Irving shared a link to a documentary that is heavily based upon the antisemitic ideologies of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement. Both West and Irving have shown public support for this movement, which claims that Black people have been robbed of their identity as being “God’s chosen people,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“[Last week’s threats] came right on the heels of celebrities and professional athletes spewing these antisemitic tropes publicly on social media, and that’s problematic. When popular celebrities and athletes promulgate these antisemitic ideas, they influence people and others start copying [these actions],” said Appell.

According to Jill Callahan, marketing director of the Jewish Community Center of Central New Jersey, the establishment has taken proactive measures to stop the spread of these antisemitic acts. “At the JCC, we do a lot of diversity, equity and inclusion training and that includes a lot of different things,” said Callahan. “When all of these [swastikas] were popping up in the bathrooms, the JCC spoke to the WHS administration to see if there was anything we could do to help with that training.”

Appell encourages everyone, especially New Jersey residents, to spread awareness about the issue and show public support for our Jewish community. He believes in the need to proceed proactively on the matter. “We have to use our social media accounts and take advantage of opportunities to talk to other people, to let them know that this is not okay.”