In face of bomb threats to Tucson J, locals respond with love

Messages of support for the Tucson Jewish Community Center include chalk art and postcards. (Eitan Penner/Tucson Jewish Community Center

On the evening of Monday, Feb. 27, the Tucson Jewish Community Center received a bomb threat phone call, making Tucson part of the disturbing trend of more than 100 bomb threats targeting JCCs and other Jewish institutions across the country since mid-January.

Last Friday, March 10, as the AJP was preparing to report on the kindness and solidarity the community has shown the Tucson J, the center received a second bomb threat, this one by email.

Following the J’s safety and security protocols, members and staff once again sheltered in place while police conducted a thorough search of the property. The J was given the all-clear some 90 minutes later, at about 3:30 p.m., and immediately resumed its programs.

“Obviously this continues to be of concern, that it’s disruptive and disconcerting, but by and large people have been very supportive,” says Todd Rockoff, president and CEO of the J. He adds that he would understand “if people do take a little step back, but we’re here for the long haul as an agency that serves the community. We’re not going to let someone who wants to tear our community down do that to us, because we’re in the business of building up community.”

Dozens of people who responded to the news on social media echoed this positive stance, with some expressing sadness, anger or bewilderment, but few speaking of fear.

On March 10, Tucsonan Vicki Otto, whose son was at the J during both events, wrote a particularly upbeat and defiant Facebook post, telling the anonymous perpetrator[s] that they are irrelevant in the face of courage and community. “You accomplished nothing,” she wrote. “My [son] and his confident courage are relevant and important. The wonderful men and women of the Tucson Police Department cleared the scene, responding to danger as they do every day. They and their service are relevant and important. We who stand together, holding each other in our hearts, regardless of religion, background, color, gender, or really anything else — we are relevant and important …”

After the first bomb threat, the J experienced “an incredible outpouring of support from our community,” Rockoff told the AJP, detailing “three distinct acts of kindness” that took place the next day, starting with a small group who stood outside the J in the morning, greeting people and holding up signs expressing Muslim and Christian support. “It was a really very emotional experience,” says Rockoff,

Next, Michelle Conklin, executive director at the Tucson Botanical Gardens and one of her colleagues brought the J “a beautiful potted succulent plant … They wanted us to know that our neighbors down Alvernon [Way] also supported us,” he says.

Toward the end of the day, “a group of 10 or 11 individuals from the Ahmaddiyya Muslim Community came by with a dozen beautiful roses, a gorgeous letter and a desire to take a tour,” Rockoff says. “And that was just Tuesday.”

The Arizona Faith Network issued a statement of solidarity signed by more than 150 clergy and lay leaders representing a variety of faiths.

On Saturday, March 4, a chalk mob decorated the sidewalk outside the J with drawings and statements “of affection and support and kindness that I think really represent Tucson,” Rockoff says. The chalk artists were mostly from the Tucson chapter of Pantsuit Nation, an activist group, according to the Arizona Daily Star.

Another show of support came from further afield – all the way from Vermont. On March 7, the J received several postcards from members of the Local Love Brigade in Vermont, with messages and images of support. One was a simple drawing of two hands clasped to form a heart. Another declared “LOVE WINS!” and “We’ve got your backs!”

Locally, public officials also spoke out. Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and U.S. Reps. Martha McSally and Tom O’Halleran issued strong statements condemning the threats.  Sen. John McCain reached out on Twitter, using the IStandWithTheJCC hashtag. Sen. Jeff Flake made a personal call to Rockoff after the first threat, while Gov. Doug Ducey called him after the second. On March 7, all 100 senators signed a letter urging “swift action” from federal law enforcement agencies. The letter was sent to Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director James Comey.

Sue DeBenedette, director of communications at the J, noted that the Tucson City Council will soon be voting on a proposal to adjust the penalties for hate crimes.

But Rockoff returned to the ideas of community and kindness.

“I think this is a beautiful part of the story, which is the part of the story that says that people care. The J remains open and moving forward, serving the community. We live in a very kind community that does not want to tolerate intolerance.”