By Michael Jacobs / firstname.lastname@example.org Rabbi Michael Bernstein of Gesher L’Torah
The initial concern caused by an anti-Semitic prank call to Congregation Gesher L’Torah has given way to appreciation for community support and for the quick, effective response by the Alpharetta police.
“Rather than feel more threatened, this reinforces the feeling of being part of the neighborhood in a real way,” Gesher L’Torah Rabbi Michael Bernstein said in an interview, adding that he was reassured by the way the police looked after the congregation. “That’s all I’ve taken from this experience.”
The experience started with a message left on the synagogue voicemail system about 5:20 p.m. Feb. 4 during religious school. Judaic studies coordinator Carla Birnbaum listened to the message only after taking a phone call a couple of minutes later from a young man who said his friend had just left an obnoxious message that the synagogue should ignore and delete.
“The voicemail we received was vile and contained unambiguous anti-Semitic language,” Rabbi Bernstein said in a written statement.
The message from “Adolf” referred to poisonous gas and furnaces that could hold 45 people and included a vow to “murder all of you.”
Following security procedures, the synagogue called 911 and went on lockdown with 40 to 45 children and 10 staffers inside, although Rabbi Bernstein said synagogue officials always suspected that the message came from someone trying to cause fear but not harm.
Police arrived in a few minutes, and the children were released to their parents. Congregation President Stephen Klee that evening sent members the first of three email messages about the incident, offering assurances about increased security and other steps taken to keep families safe.
“We feel we have an obligation to treat calls like these as if they are serious and credible,” Klee wrote in the second email, adding that the synagogue contracted for additional security through the end of Sunday school Feb. 8.
The voicemail system recorded the cellphone number from which the call came, and Alpharetta police detectives quickly learned that the number belonged to a family in Cumming with 17- and 15-year-old sons. The 15-year-old admitted making the phone call, acknowledged it was stupid, denied meaning any harm or being a bad person, and said he and his friends together decided what he would say.
According to the police report, the teen’s father was present for the confession at his house. When the mother arrived, she yelled at her husband, a Forsyth County deputy and the Alpharetta police detective about the situation and “asked if we felt good about ourselves, adding that we were teenagers once.”
After a synagogue board meeting Feb. 5, Gesher L’Torah attorney Michael Penn told the police Feb. 9 that the congregation wanted to proceed with prosecution of the teen.
“While the incident itself has been determined to be a prank from someone outside our community, the disruption and concern caused to us has been taken seriously,” Klee wrote in the third email. “The safety of our congregation remains our highest priority and the board has taken decisive action to pursue consequences which will surely impact the individual who harassed our community.”
The 15-year-old was arrested Feb. 9, charged with the felony of making terroristic threats and acts, and released to the custody of his mother. His case will proceed through juvenile court in Fulton County.
“Regardless of how this plays out in the legal system, we want this teen not only to realize that what he did has consequences, but to recognize the severity of the act itself and the brutality of the Nazis who carried out the crimes that he described in his words,” Rabbi Bernstein said in his statement.
He added in an interview that it’s important for the teen to understand that what he considered to be a prank was not harmless or meaningless, and he hopes that the youth achieves teshuva, recognizing his mistake, feeling remorse and returning to his best self.
“Taking anti-Semitism serious is a lesson we should never forget,” the rabbi said, but “we don’t need our own congregation to be the center of teaching that lesson.”
He said the entire Jewish community should teach that lesson.
As for the general community, Rabbi Bernstein emphasized that the call was an aberration and that the congregation had positive interactions across the board from police and other officials.
‘My Name Is Adolf’
Here is the phone message left by the Cumming 15-year-old, according to the Alpharetta police report:
“Hey, my name is Adolf, and I was looking to come into your congregation. I got a call from you guys earlier that you wanted a few furnaces installed. … Hum, I have those too. I have the XL furnaces, which will fit 45 of you in, and I have the medium furnaces, which only fit about 20. I need a call back to see how many people you have there so I know how many to bring down. Um, I also do chambers if you need them. We have tear gas. We got mustard gas and nova gas. … We got it all. So am going to need you call me back so I know what to use on y’all. … By the way, y’all are dirty, f—ing roaches, and I will murder all of you. … Bye.”