When the phone started ringing, at about ten thirty on February 22, more than 150 students inside the Sandra E. Lerner Jewish Community Day School were well into their morning routines.
A staff member answered. "In a short time," the unidentified voice on the other end of the line said, "a large number of Jews are going to be slaughtered." They would die, the caller continued, in a "bloodbath" courtesy of "a C-4 bomb with a lot of shrapnel."
School officials initiated their emergency protocols. The police were called. The building was evacuated. Fortunately, spring had come early to Durham, so it was mild outside and the sun was shining as the children—as young as two and up to to fifth grade—made their way to the school's designated safe zone. But that was little consolation to the parents on the other end of a robocall alerting them to the situation.
The bomb-sniffing dogs that descended on Lerner that Wednesday morning didn't find anything. But even after authorities gave the all-clear, Lerner canceled the remainder of the school day. Board president Hollis Gauss noted in a letter to parents that "bomb threats are usually used as a scare tactic [to] cause fear and panic." But Gauss told the INDY that the disruption had real consequences: parents were forced to leave work and students lost valuable instruction time. Even though no bomb was found, future threats would have to be taken seriously "every single time."
Additional threats are a very real possibility.
In a trend characterized as disturbing by Jewish leaders, politicians, and social justice activists, more than a hundred bomb threats have been called in to seventy-two Jewish institutions across thirty states so far this year. According to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report, the most recent of five waves of such threats came on February 27, when twenty-one threats were called in, including one to a Jewish community center in Asheville. (On Friday, federal agents charged Juan Thompson, a former journalist, with making bomb threats against at least eight Jewish centers as part of a bizarre campaign to harass a woman he'd previously dated; it's unknown whether he's suspected in similar cases such as the one at Lerner.)
- Photos by Alex Boerner
Meanwhile, hundreds of tombstones have been damaged at Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia and St. Louis, and swastikas have been carved into cars in Miami. And just a few days ago, according to the State Bureau of Investigation, somebody wrote "Jews Must Die" on a blackboard in a Mitchell County school. (The FBI's Charlotte office declined to comment on the matter.)
"People are thinking about pulling their kids out of schools, quitting [Jewish Community Centers]," says Rabbi Larry Bach of Judea Reform. "That's all true and measurable. And this sort of thing emboldens others who might take it to the next level."
Some, including N.C. NAACP leader Rev. William Barber, have blamed the increasing tensions—the Southern Poverty Law Center recently reported that the number of hate groups in the U.S. has tripled in the past year—on President Trump's rhetoric. Others have suggested that the administration's crackdown on undocumented immigrants, visitors from some Muslim-majority countries, and the admission of refugees has encouraged xenophobes to act out.
But several leaders of the local Jewish community were careful not to stoke comparisons between Trump and Adolf Hitler. As Rabbi John Friedman, formerly of Judea Reform, puts it, anti-Semitism is "something that is a part of American culture. ... Sometimes, there are trends that repress it—make it not stylish to express your hatred or your bigotry or whatever—but I think it's around all the time."
However, Friedman and his colleagues have noticed a tangible difference this time around. Jews aren't the only ones who feel marginalized and under siege. And they—linking arms with members of the LGTBQ community, Muslims, refugees, and immigrants—say they'll refuse to stay silent in the face of it.
"History has lessons," Friedman says. "Like silence in the face of the abuse of another person. That's an important lesson."
"We've been in these fights since long before [Trump] happened," Bach adds. "But what this moment is allowing for—and not allowing in the sense that we're grateful for it—in this moment, what is happening is people are noticing. We're showing up."