Mitchel Malkus is a rabbi and head of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville.
What happens when someone calls a school to say he plans to blow up the building while spouting a vile and sadistic anti-Semitic tirade? On Monday, the school I lead received such a call. One moment smiling, high-fiving students were entering the campus to begin their week; the next that sense of joy and welcome was shattered and became dread and danger.
My school was not the first to receive such a threat, and it was not the only school or community center affected that morning. In fact, since Jan. 1 more than 100 Jewish day schools and other Jewish institutions across the country have been forced to react to bomb threats. Other faith traditions, including Muslim organizations and mosques, have also received threats.
What occurred because of that phone call? Two very different things.
The first result was a major disruption and violation of our right to safety and security. Students who had just sat down to study the ancient texts of our tradition, or gene therapy, or trigonometry, received the emotional shock that someone wanted to destroy their school simply because it was a Jewish institution. Parents who had just begun their workdays felt their hearts skip a beat as they received the news that their children were in danger. Faculty and staff were thrust instantly into positions challenging them to show their students care and calmness while, at the same time, they held the very real feeling that an explosion might take place at any moment. The staff and administration spent countless hours responding to parents, community members and the media. What should have been the beginning of a normal week of learning instead brought feelings of fear and anxiety accompanied by physical threat — exactly what the perpetrator sought to accomplish.
But something else — something wonderful and amazing — happened, too. Later that day, and throughout the rest of the week, I received countless emails, phone calls and letters from concerned citizens and local and religious leaders expressing their support for our students and our community. Then, a news conference was held where both U.S. senators from Maryland, three U.S. representatives and virtually all of the major elected officials of our county condemned the bomb threats and the hatred they represent in clear and strong language. The climax of this outpouring came when more than 40 religious leaders filled our stage to announce their condemnation and support. Thus, the second outcome of the bomb threat was an unexpected bolstering of my faith in what it means to be an American and in the American experiment that I believe in so deeply.
Seeing those religious leaders, representing Anglicans, Catholics, Episcopalians, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, among others, was one of my proudest moments as an American. The leaders stood tall to proclaim that when one religious group’s constitutional right to worship and congregate freely is threatened, all religious groups are threatened. This is what Americans do in difficult times: We stand up for each other.
At that moment, it was abundantly clear to me — and to the hundreds of others in the auditorium — that those responsible for threats made in hatred had unleashed an outpouring of love and support. As the United States experienced a precipitous rise in hate speech over the past year, I expected that it would be the Jewish community that would need to stand up for the rights of Muslims, Hispanics and other groups being targeted. Seeing those religious and elected leaders stand up for my own community reassured me that the American values that have enabled American Jews to flourish in this country will continue to be a source of strength for all Americans.
Rather than darkness and hate, a bomb threat brought light and hope for our future as a country.