My non-Jewish friends want to know. How could over 40 JCCs receive bomb threats like this, in 2017? JCCs all across the country received them, from small towns to decently populated cities, including our own beloved Birmingham JCC.
Perhaps the answer is in the name. JCC stands for Jewish Community Center. That name alone could strike fear into the heart of anyone who isn’t used to hearing the word Jew without dirty in front of it. The name that embodies a history of the Jewish principle of Ahavat Yisrael; to love one’s fellow Jews. The JCC started as the Jewish alternative to the YMCA. Their facilities took in Jewish immigrants and prepared them for citizenship while welcoming them and fulfilling their needs for daily Jewish spaces mentally, physically, and spiritually. It was a place to go when Jews were excluded from other community institutions. For Jews today, the JCC is a center of gravity.
Not every Jew in Birmingham regularly attends a synagogue, but they do send their kids to JCC camps or use the tennis courts. In a small community, the JCC is the living room. We all gather, we all embrace, we all know who our family is.
But existing as a Jew, as we have all heard our bubbe’s mutter, is hard. Jewish Community Centers have been the backdrop to incredible violence in the past 30 years. In 1994, with the AMIA Bombing in Buenos Aires that injured hundreds of people and killed 84. Shootings in 1999 and 2006 injured children. In 2014, right before Passover, a white supremacist killed three at a JCC in Kansas.
Most JCCs have a specialty in child care, with nurseries and preschools, like we have in Birmingham, and typically holding kindergarten through 8th grade school. People literally grow up in the JCC. At some point, the idea of threat becomes a daily anxiety. It sits there like an zit; usually harmless but ugly and an unfortunate part of reality.
Dozens of bomb threats in two weeks may seem alarming, but as more JCC directors and Jewish Federation members speak out, it is apparent that this isn’t unexpected. JCCs have security procedures for this. Many were open for business only hours after the bomb threats. Is that a moment where we thank G-d?
Hate crimes are on the rise. Some people, it seems, hate Jews. It isn’t that we’re unfavorable. It’s that the hatred of Jews is ancient, thoroughly institutionalized, and people just don’t know what anti-semitism looks like. I have Jewish colleagues who say they don’t experience anti-semitism. Maybe they don’t. I was given detention my 6th grade year for punching a boy who called me a stupid Jew and the school was very confused when I didn’t show up for Saturday school. Fundamentally, we are what our experiences make us.
And most of the experiences I have had with anti-semitism in Birmingham, Alabama, have started as light-hearted exchanges with strangers who are curious about my visible Judaism. Some of these exchanges have ended with political discussions not appropriate for the Target check-out line, some with leaving waiting rooms and rescheduling appointments from my car, some with uncomfortable questions about Jesus.
And this constant grating is what makes the bomb threats so heartbreaking. It isn’t that it’s a random event or a huge surprise. It’s the slow disappointment of scrolling through blog post after blog post about attacks on Jews in Europe and South America. It’s the daily reminder that you only know about the increase in anti-semitism from Jewish newspapers and blogs. It took a few rehearsals in the mirror to tell my father about the LJCC. He barely liked me hanging out at the front desk (as a good Jewish girl, I grew up in and now work for the JCC) when I was at work because of the non-ending haters.
They are behind the phones, hiding their faces. Their faces are the same as the ones behind the anonymous icons that leave neo-Nazi sentiments in my blog’s mailbox. They comment on the YouTube videos I show my Hebrew school students. They force an entire school, a nursery, and a preschool to evacuate their facilities in the middle of a school day. They fulfill parent’s most dreadful fantasies. They remind us from their shadows that we are not safe. It is not okay to see slideshows of children you’ve cared for, or any children, walking down the highway to a safe place. It is not okay to see the images of cribs filled with toddlers being rolled out of their pastel rooms onto sidewalks in single file being pushed by tired, frightened women who, for the first time, would much rather be watching Playhouse Disney.
But thank G-d, everyone here in Birmingham is, at least physically, okay. Wednesday’s weather was good enough for t-shirts. This was a nation-wide problem, there were day schools that had children evacuating in the snow. If I may brag a bit, we have a wonderful JCC staff that is quick, efficient, and serious when there is a problem, sensitive to families, and concerned about the safety and future of the Jewish Community of Birmingham. And thank G-d nothing happened. As I explained to a friend yesterday, it isn’t that it isn’t real. It’s very real. It’s that terror isn’t just fire and blood, it’s psychological. For the type of person that gets kicks out of sending in bomb threats, an explosion would have simply been a bonus. It’s the fear and the sorrow and the worry that get’s them going. As a community constantly being berated, it is only natural to feel these things.
On Monday, I posted about the attempts to bomb Temple Beth-El. I hope this is the last of the posts I write about violence to Jewish centers in Birmingham. The true beauty of the Jewish heart is that it can take fragments of a shattered heart and grow whole gardens of love and warmth and joy, pump life with new eyes into parts of the soul that hadn’t been discovered yet, and learn how to bend and move in new ways when the spaces we fill shrink. Bomb threats are scary. Bombs have brought our people to great tragedy, but never to shambles.
If you go to the Levite Jewish Community Center, you are greeted by a butterfly garden that was dedicated in honor of the victims of the Holocaust. The halls are filled with the words to HaTikvah, Hebrew for The Hope. So, as the poet Naftali Herz Imber states, as long as the Jewish heart still yearns, we will persevere with pride. There is a Jewish living room at home here in Birmingham, Alabama.
But what does this mean for the non-Jewish residents of Birmingham? It means learning about anti-semitism and how to recognize it. It means taking a stand against anti-Jewish speech and actions. It means looking out and standing up for your Jewish neighbors. It means education. Education can be hard, it can be scary, it can be a lot, it can be intimidating, but so is living as 2% of the population, yet being the group targeted in almost half of this country’s hate crimes. If you’re upset by the news of the bomb threats, and if you are baffled about how this could have happened, ask yourself what you’ve done that could have prevented it. We are all in this city, in this state, in this world together. Let’s be better. Let’s be braver and stronger than before.
Me and my mishpocha are here to stay.