My JCC in Maitland, Florida (near Orlando) has been around for more than 40 years. Just like most JCCs, we have a preschool, a summer camp, activities for seniors, a theater department, after school care, and a vibrant community of loving, caring people.
For some reason, in January, we were the target of repeated threatening phone calls. Three times in a period of 13 days, people filled with hatred called in empty threats to scare us. It worked. While other JCCs across the country who experienced one or two of these calls had a few parents pull their students from their preschools, we had a significant number of students withdraw—possibly more than all of the other affected JCCs combined. We were victims and no one is talking about it.
I was at the JCC for the first call. The staff was unbelievably calm and prepared while evacuating a few hundred students to a nearby elementary school. At that time, only our campus and a nearby Chabad were targeted. Five days later, approximately 19 JCCs received similar threats via telephone. Our campus (which also houses a Jewish day school, the Federation offices, and a Holocaust museum) evacuated again. At that point, about a dozen parents had officially withdrawn their children. Whether the threat truly scared them, or the inconvenience of having to leave work twice in a week to pick up their children was too difficult to deal with, we’ll never know.
Whatever the reasons were, the number of withdrawals started to increase. When I spoke to our CEO about it, he said, “We’ll be fine as long as this doesn’t happen again.”
One week later, 32 JCCs were targeted. This time the school was put on lockdown and all of our children were moved to the gymnasium where they had a party. Once again, the teachers kept our kids safe and happy with snacks and music. The kids were clueless, and that’s the way it should be. Parents were sent photos and videos of the kids smiling and happy. Once the police had swept the campus, kiddos returned to their classrooms and the lockdown was lifted.
Throughout all of the threats, parents received updates via text message and email. By the third time around, so many parents were rattled by the text messages that it became too much for some to handle. I understand it. There’s no judgement. In fact, some families have already returned after revisiting the JCC and seeing firsthand the security improvements. We hope that they all come back to use our facility for summer camp or after school care. They will always be a part of our JCC family.
Our highly prepared Campus Director of Security has already started to make some incredible changes. The campus, which has always felt safe to me, will be even safer without losing its hometown feel. Obviously, I can’t go into the details. All I can say is that there is nothing more precious to me than my children, and my 3-year-old daughter is at this JCC every day. I am less worried about her safety moving forward than I have ever been.
But here’s my problem. For security reasons, parents were asked not to talk about this on social media. Local and federal law enforcement have told us that this only encourages these people who only want to create panic and spread fear. While I understand not spreading the fear, or unwillingly sharing false information, one fact remains: We were a victim of hate crimes, and our story deserves to be told. Other JCCs are moving on, basically unaffected. We are picking up the pieces. We were attacked. We did nothing wrong. We didn’t deserve this.
Our incredible leadership is now left figuring out how to balance a budget without a significant part of our preschool tuition coming in. Our amazing preschool will continue to be amazing. Our wonderful teachers will continue to provide an incredible education for the children who attend. While our leadership will have to make some difficult decisions moving forward, our JCC and our preschool will continue to thrive and flourish; however, I don’t envy their jobs right now.
Letters have been coming in every day from all across the country showing support for our Jewish Community Center. Drawings showing support from local children were delivered and displayed in the teacher’s lounge. The support has been lovely. My friend Holly and I started a private Facebook page for parents and friends of the JCC to try and help us heal. We started the use of the hashtag #myjcc to share positive photos and stories about the JCC we love. We are selling t-shirts to raise money for the security fund. A major 24-hour fundraiser is set up for March 8 where donors have stepped up to match all donations 3:1. Parents have been overwhelmingly supportive.
We are resilient. We are strong. We are full of love. I would expect nothing less from my JCC.