Rabbi Zoe McCoon leads Temple Beth Torah's livestreamed Friday night service on Aug. 4, the week before a bomb threat interrupted another livestreamed service at the Fremont synagogue. (Screenshot/YouTube)
Rabbi Zoe McCoon leads Temple Beth Torah's livestreamed Friday night service on Aug. 4, the week before a bomb threat interrupted another livestreamed service at the Fremont synagogue. (Screenshot/YouTube)

‘We didn’t expect it to happen to us’: Fremont’s Beth Torah recounts Shabbat bomb scare

Near the end of the Friday night Shabbat service on Aug. 11, five police officers entered Temple Beth Torah in Fremont.

“They said that there had been a bomb threat called in and we need to evacuate the sanctuary and anyone on site,” Cheryl Cohen, the board president, told J. on Tuesday. It was a “surreal” experience, she said.

Cohen estimated that 20 people were attending the small Reform congregation’s service that evening in person, and another 10 online, when police walked in.

Beth Torah is among the latest synagogues and Jewish organizations nationwide that have been targeted by bomb threats or by fake emergencies called into local police stations in what is, so far, only a massive harassment campaign.

Cohen said the Anti-Defamation League’s regional office had recently warned local synagogues about the nationwide bomb-threat campaign, so the police officers’ sudden appearance wasn’t a complete shock.

“We knew that it was happening,” she said. “We didn’t expect it to happen to us.”

Todd Gutnick, a spokesperson for the national ADL, told J. on Aug. 15 that a total of 25 Jewish congregations in 10 states had been targeted, “in addition to three Jewish schools — one yesterday, and two this morning,” he said. All of the incidents so far have been only threats.

Temple Beth Torah President Ronnie Peterson shows off hygiene and snack packs for unhoused people in Fremont at an event organized by Beth Torah and a nearby mosque, Masjid-e-Mohammedi, May 2021. (Photo/Mufaddal Ezzy)
Past president of Temple Beth Torah Ronnie Peterson shows off hygiene and snack packs for unhoused people in Fremont at an event organized by Beth Torah and a nearby mosque, Masjid-e-Mohammedi, May 2021. (Photo/Mufaddal Ezzy)

The campaign is an “ongoing disruption to Jewish prayer services, as well as additional targets, by a group of online trolls who swat and call in fake bomb threats,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s CEO, said in the press release.

“Swatting” refers to someone calling 911 anonymously to report a fictitious crime or emergency, thus sending heavily armed police to a location.

Greenblatt added that the people responsible “appear to have expanded their targets, including several African American churches and a news organization.”

This is not the first time there’s been a wave of similar activity, including bomb threats. Regardless, organizations and law enforcement must take each threat seriously.

“Typically these are non-credible threats, but every call should be assessed on its own merits,” Rafael Brinner, director of community security for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund and a former Department of Homeland Security field representative, said earlier this year after two Bay Area Jewish schools received gun and bomb threats.

Cohen said synagogue leaders had been working intently on a new security and emergency plan that was set to be approved on Sunday, Aug. 13. “The timing was kind of interesting,” she said.

After the congregants evacuated, police searched the building, finding nothing. Cohen added that the incident has made congregants feel grateful for support, both inside the Jewish community and beyond.

“We kind of focus on the gratitude,” she said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.