Congregation Etz Chaim’s leading vocalist Fern Meharg was finishing the Hallel prayer Saturday welcoming the new month of Adar about an hour into the online Shabbat service when a cacophony of screaming young Zoombombers brought the service to a crashing standstill. The unwelcomed band of five to 10 disrupters caught the congregation of about 50 attendees by surprise, beginning with what seemed an unmuted mic – a periodic and predictable occurrence in the ubiquitous COVID age of Zoom meetings – and developing into a steady barrage of anti-Semitic and racial statements. These including some penned in the Zoom chat space, such as “Kill the Jews,” “F—Jews,” “Hitler Rules,” and “Free Palestine.” Not to mention a few graphic porn images.
A week later, Feb. 19, Cobb County police informed synagogue leaders the perpetrators were teenagers from Nevada and Europe who were connected by an online video game and communicated through social media their interest in disrupting an unprotected Zoom meeting.
Contacted by the AJT the day after the Feb. 13 incident, Meharg shared her reaction. “It was an incredibly upsetting incident, but unfortunately, not a surprise these days,” she wrote in an email. “I had previously experienced a Zoom bombing, though for that incident I was not leading the service.
“Once I realized what was happening [Saturday], my focus was on trying to help our leadership get rid of the perpetrators and get our Service back on track. I didn’t want to allow the incident to ruin what we had gathered virtually to do or to overshadow the meaning of the day.”
After the offenders were barred from the gathering Saturday, a process that took about 15 minutes, the service continued uninterrupted, according to those in attendance.
Saturday’s Zoombombing comes nearly a year after Etz Chaim and other synagogues worldwide took their Shabbat services to Zoom as result of COVID safety restrictions. A similar incident at Etz Chaim rocked a musical Friday night Shabbat service April 3.
In response to the recent disruption, Executive Director Marty Gilbert sent an email to congregants after Shabbat Saturday night explaining what had transpired earlier in the day. “Although efforts were made to minimize the disturbing comments and messages sent in the chat by the infiltrators, their hateful spouting still made it through to our attending congregants.
“Over the past year we have tried to keep Shabbat Morning Services open to all.
Unfortunately that practice will not be able to continue. Going forward we will password protect Shabbat Morning Service in the same way that we have password protected all other Minyans and Services,” he wrote.
“To those of you that were on the Zoom Service, I apologize for all of you being subjected to such an upsetting situation. My hope is that it will be an isolated incident but as we all know, hate has no limitations at times.”
Gilbert also spoke to the AJT about the disturbing occurrence, stating that the synagogue knew it was taking the risk of being Zoombombed by not duplicating the kind of tighter security comparable to a law enforcement presence outside the synagogue whenever congregants are in the building. He said the synagogue was trying to make Shabbat accessible. “As Jews we can [be] anywhere and attend services, and we wanted to try to emulate that feeling of community people feel as they travel.”
Etz Chaim apparently was not the only Atlanta synagogue to have experienced Zoombombing recently, according to Allison Padilla-Goodman, vice president of the Southern division of the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL was one of several agencies to which Saturday’s Zoombombing was reported.
“This is the second significant zoombombing incident from Atlanta area synagogues in the past couple of weeks,” she said. The other incident was Jan. 23 during a Gesher L’Torah shiva call, she said.
“Unfortunately, the Jewish community and people everywhere need to remain highly vigilant of these types of incidents. We are living in times of high rates of antisemitism, as well as an emboldened extremist population who is highly motivated by antisemitism.”
Etz Chaim’s interim Associate Rabbi Albert Slomovitz, who led Saturday’s service, echoed the refrains of others consulted for this story who said the perpetrators did not accomplish their goal after causing what he termed a minor emergency because the service continued after they were “removed.”
In fact, Slomovitz said he didn’t change his intended sermon proposing 40 days of fundraising to feed hungry children.
Saturday was not only Rosh Chodesh, the new month, but Shabbat Shekalim, which announces that Passover arrives in about 40 days, which is also how long Moses was on Mount Sinai, Slomovitz explained.
He said Saturday’s incident gave purpose to his mission. “For me it was a paradoxical moment, people coming online and trying to cause disruption and we proposed to try to mend the destruction and go on.” At the end of the service, Slomovitz assured those gathered online that while others may try to break down, divide and spread poison, he hopes congregants will take action for tikkun olam, to repair the world. “We respond not with malice, but to continue to do more for the community.”