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Bomb threats, defaced graves alarm local Jewish centers

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

The string of threats nationwide against the Jewish community hit Metro Detroit on Monday, putting local cemeteries, community centers and schools on high alert.

A bomb threat forced the evacuation of Hebrew Day School in Ann Arbor and joined a list of abuses, including the vandalism this weekend of more than 100 headstones at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia.

In suburban St. Louis last week, 154 headstones were damaged at a Jewish cemetery.

The Ann Arbor incident was one of several reported bomb threats Monday at Jewish community centers and schools in at least a dozen states, according to the JCC Association of North America.

No bombs were found. Many of the 21 buildings — 13 community centers and eight schools — were cleared by early Monday afternoon and had resumed normal operations. It was the fifth round of bomb threats against Jewish institutions since January.

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.

Michigan State Police Lt. Michael Shaw urged residents to be vigilant of suspicious behavior, particularly in areas with high Jewish populations.

“If you live around a Jewish neighborhood, (such as in) Oak Park and Southfield, you don’t have to be part of that community to say something about it,” Shaw said. “We will probably step up patrols in some areas with Jewish community centers.”

Jewish cemeteries and centers in Metro Detroit said Monday they were requesting increased police presence and being more watchful of activity on their properties.

“We are definitely concerned about it,” said Steve Hagerty, grounds manager at Adat Shalon Memorial Park in Livonia. “We haven’t had any issues, but then again we are keeping our eyes open.”

Ann Arbor police said they were working with the FBI to identify the source of the bomb threat at Hebrew Day School, which is connected to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Ann Arbor.

Police did not locate any explosive devices and students and staff returned to the building after about two hours, Ann Arbor Detective Lt. Matthew Lige said.

“Our Jewish community has been the focus of reported bomb threats in the past,” Lige said. “The political climate has brought greater attention to the Jewish community in Ann Arbor.”

Elsewhere, Hebrew Memorial Chapel in Oak Park is boosting its surveillance this week, said funeral director Otto Dube.

Dube declined to provide detail about the security measures, but said the bomb threats and vandalism were a “major concern.”

“As a community we have to go through so much and have suffered so much with antisemitism and prejudice,” he said. “A resurfacing of that is a very frightening thought.”

Dube said he’s received calls from families concerned about the tombstones of loved ones at Jewish cemeteries.

In Philadelphia, people reported Sunday finding tombstones of relatives that had been damaged and knocked over.

Martina Murphy, office manager at Machpelah Cemetery in Ferndale, said her office asked the police to keep an eye on the property, especially at night.

Murphy said she doesn’t see a need to add security beyond locking the cemetery gates.

“Considering what else is happening in the world, let alone all the infighting in the country, it’s not like a big surprise,” Murphy said of the recent attacks.

David Posner, director of strategic performance at the JCC Association of North America, released a statement Monday saying “antisemitism of this nature should not and must not be allowed to endure in our communities.”

“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 antisemitism impacting communities across the country,” Posner said.