York JCC reacts to arrest in connection to bomb threat

Staff and wire report
  • Melissa Plotkin of the York JCC said the organization is pleased to hear of an arrest in connection with numerous bomb threats against U.S. JCCs.
  • The York JCC received a bomb threat on Feb. 27, as did other JCCs and day schools in 11 states.

Israeli police on Thursday arrested a 19-year-old Israeli Jewish man as the primary suspect in a string of bomb threats targeting Jewish community centers and other institutions in the U.S., marking a potential breakthrough in the case after an international manhunt with the FBI.

A 19-year-old dual U.S.-Israeli citizen covers his face as he is brought to court in Rishon Lezion, Israel, Thursday, March 23, 2017. Israeli police said they have arrested a Jewish Israeli man who is the prime suspect behind a wave of bomb threats against Jewish community centers and other institutions in the United States. The police withheld his identity. (AP Photo/Nir Keidar)

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld described the suspect as a hacker but said his motives were still unclear. Police banned publication of his name but said he was an American-Israeli dual citizen and that he would remain in custody until at least March 30.

"He's the guy who was behind the JCC threats," Rosenfeld said, referring to the dozens of anonymous threats phoned in to Jewish community centers in the U.S. over the past two months. Israeli media said the man had been found unfit for compulsory military service.

Israel's Channel 10 TV showed footage of the suspect appearing in court in the central Israeli city of Rishon Letzion. He wore tan pants and a blue sweater that he used to cover his face as he walked past reporters.

The channel said the young man had lived in the U.S. for a period of time and had been home-schooled. It showed images of a large antenna outside his house and said his father also was arrested.

York JCC: Melissa Plotkin, director of community engagement and diversity at the York JCC, said staff members at the organization are happy to hear of the arrest, but they are still concerned about further bomb threats.

“No matter who the organization is or who is being targeted, I think there’s always going to be a concern about those individuals who may choose to copycat,” Plotkin said.

The York JCC will remain ready to respond in the case of further threats, Plotkin said, while the organization will continue to support other entities affected by discrimination and harassment.

Plotkin said staff at the York JCC were “overwhelmed” and “thankful for the continued support” shown by people from around the county and across the country after the organization was targeted by a bomb threat on Feb. 27. Postcards, letters and donations have come in from as far away as Michigan and California, Plotkin said.

The JCC Association of North America said Jewish community centers and day schools in 11 states received bomb threats in the most recent wave of bomb threats at the end of February.

No bombs were found at any of the locations targeted by the threats. It was the fifth wave of bomb threats against Jewish community centers and Jewish institutions since January.

JCCs across the country will remain strong in the face of harassment, vandalism and bomb threats, and the York JCC will continue to move forward without compromising its ideals, Plotkin said.

“We represent a place for acceptance and inclusion, and we appreciate that our members in the community embrace us for those ideals,” Plotkin said. “We will remain a strong part of the York community.”

Dekey Tenpa of Spring Garden Township and her daughter Sahela, 4, walk to their car at York Suburban High School after the York Jewish Community Center was evacuated Monday, Feb. 27, 2017. Children in the center's daycare programs were staged at the high school. Bill Kalina photo

In a statement to local members Thursday, York JCC interim CEO Matthew Scarpato thanked local, federal and international law enforcement agencies for finding the person suspected of calling in the bomb-threat hoaxes.

"On behalf of the York JCC, we are gratified by the progress in this investigation, and applaud the commitment and leadership of the FBI and other federal agencies, Israeli law enforcement and local law enforcement across the United States and Canada. It is troubling to learn that the individual suspected of making these threats against Jewish community centers, which serve as inclusive and welcoming places for all, is reportedly Jewish," Scarpato said in the statement. "Our JCC staff, members and community partners will continue to take part in the extraordinary programs and initiatives we offer, and they will continue to do so with confidence that the York JCC will remain a vital and exciting engine for building inspired and ever-stronger communities."

Pastor David Tietje, of St. John's UCC in Red Lion, speaks as community members gather during an interfaith service of healing and solidarity with the York Jewish community at Luther Memorial Church in York Township, Thursday, March 2, 2017. The service was held in light of bomb threats made earlier in the week against the Jewish community center. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Primary suspect: In Washington, the FBI confirmed the arrest of the main suspect.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the arrest was the result of a large investigation into hate crimes against the Jewish community. He said the Justice Department "will not tolerate the targeting of any community in the country on the basis of their religious beliefs." He called work by the FBI and Israeli police "outstanding."

The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish-American group that battles anti-Semitism, says there have been more than 150 bomb threats against Jewish community centers and day schools in 37 states and two Canadian provinces since Jan. 9. Those threats led to evacuations of the buildings and raised fears of rising anti-Semitism. The threats were accompanied by acts of vandalism on several Jewish cemeteries.

President Donald Trump's administration was criticized for not speaking out fast enough. Last month, the White House denounced the threats and rejected "anti-Semitic and hateful threats in the strongest terms."

Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the ADL, expressed relief over the arrest and thanked the FBI and U.S. authorities for making the investigation a priority.

"Even though it appears that the main culprit behind the majority of these attacks has allegedly been identified, anti-Semitism in the U.S. remains a very serious concern," he said, noting there have been no arrests in other anti-Semitic incidents. "JCCs and other institutions should not relax security measures or become less vigilant," he said.

Secondary arrest: U.S. authorities also arrested a former journalist from St. Louis for allegedly threatening Jewish organizations. Juan Thompson has been indicted in New York on one count of cyberstalking.

But Israeli police described the local man as the primary suspect in the wave of threats.

Israeli police said the suspect made dozens of calls claiming to have placed bombs in public places and private companies, causing panic and "significant economic damage" and disrupting public order, including by the hurried evacuations of a number of public venues around the world.  The man also is suspected of placing threatening phone calls to Australia and New Zealand and within Israel.

Rosenfeld said the man called Delta Airlines in February 2015 and made a false threat about explosives aboard a flight from JFK airport in New York. The threat allegedly led to an emergency landing.

Yaniv Azani, an official in the Israeli police's cyber unit, said the suspect had used sophisticated means to cover his tracks.

"He used several different means to camouflage the various layers of communication mechanisms he used to carry out these calls," he told reporters.

Rosenfeld said the man, from the south of Israel, used advanced technologies to mask the origin of his calls and communications to synagogues, community buildings and public venues. He said police searched his house Thursday morning and discovered antennas and satellite equipment.

Israeli cybersecurity expert Nimrod Vax said the phone calls required a certain level of sophistication but were "not too difficult" for an experienced hacker.

"It's not something anyone from the street could do. But it doesn't take any expensive, or resources that are hard to get, to build this kind of an attack or diversion," he said.

He said tracking down the suspect was far more challenging, requiring authorities to go through "billions, if not trillions" of records, including phone records, routing logs and IP connections.

"This takes a processing of a lot of data, so it requires a lot of resources," said Vax, a co-founder of Israeli-U.S. cybersecurity company BigID.

Associated Press writers Eric Tucker in Washington and Josh Cornfield in Trenton, New Jersey, contributed to this report. York Dispatch writer Jason Addy also contributed to this report.