Anti-Semitic threats and vandalism hit Chicago Jewish centers

By Eric Burgher

Hostility toward Jewish community centers and day schools across the nation continued this week, with bomb threats to centers in 11 states, and approximately 100 headstones damaged at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia over the weekend. With no suspects in custody, concern continues to grow in the Jewish community.

The latest wave of incidents raised the total to 100 at 81 locations in 33 U.S states and two Canadian provinces since the start of the year, according to the JCC Association of North America.

“The real fear is that it’ll escalate and it’ll inspire [similar] behavior,” said Rabbi David Wolkenfeld of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Lakeview. “A lot of really dark stuff has bubbled up and is making itself seen and heard in a way I don’t recall in any time of my life. And it’s really unsettling.”

Jewish communities around Chicago have been targeted three times in the last four weeks, including bomb threats at the JCC in Lake Zurich on Jan.  31 and the JCC in Hyde Park on Feb.  20. Additionally, the Chicago Loop Synagogue, a congregation of about 800 people, had its windows smashed and was marked with swastikas on Feb.  4.

“It’s sickening,” said Megan Katz, a JCC parent from Lake Zurich,  adding that the threat came on her children’s fourth day at the school.  “It’s horrible that they are directing it toward children. Not just Jews, but helpless children and their caregivers.”

Katz, who recently moved from Chicago,  said she was happy with the way the teachers handled the evacuation, but she still has safety concerns moving forward.

“To me, it’s a fear of not being prepared if something is truly going to happen,” Katz said. “It’s making sure teachers and staff and the administration are really on their toes and making sure there is heightened security. There is not a ton of additional security from what I see.”

The Jewish Community Center Association, or JCCA, and the JCC Chicago recently released statements.  When questioned about increased security at JCC sites around Chicago,  Elizabeth Abrams, the communications director, said  that safety is always their number one priority and “every staff member knows what to do and how to handle the situation.”

“For more than one hundred years, JCC Chicago has been here, offering connection, community, life-affirming programs and experiences in a safe and welcoming environment. Today is no different,” Alan Sataloff, president and CEO,  said in a Feb. 23  statement.

Rabbi Wolkenfeld said he has talked with other congregations in the neighborhood to keep their security protocols up to code and update their policies to best prepare for such threats. Despite the overwhelming uptick of anti-Semitism, the rabbi said he still feels safe walking around the streets of Chicago, due in some part to ethnic and religious groups, including Muslims, that have reached out after the recent acts of prejudice.

“That’s a silver lining,” Wolkenfeld said. “As so many of our communities of different ethnic and religious backgrounds have felt threatened, we’ve responded by showing up and supporting one another.”

Photo at top: The Chicago Loop Synagogue was vandalized in a wave of recent anti-Semitic activity. (Eric Burgher/MEDILL)