Whitefish Bay JCC officials “cautiously optimistic” following arrest linked to threats

WHITEFISH BAY -- A Jewish teenager was arrested Thursday, March 23rd in connection with a series of bomb threats that have rattled Jewish institutions and community centers across the United States and other countries, Israeli police said. There have been FOUR threats this year at the Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay -- and officials spoke out on Thursday after this arrest.

A months-long international investigation led to the 19-year-old suspect, who used "advanced camouflage technologies" to cover his tracks, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. The suspect holds dual American-Israeli citizenship, an Israeli security official told CNN. He was arrested in southern Israel after an undercover investigation with the FBI. The threats were made against sites in the United States, Australia and New Zealand. In one case, an airline had to make an emergency landing, Rosenfeld said. Law enforcement officials have told CNN they believed many of the threatening calls to Jewish community centers originated overseas. Israeli police are still trying to determine the teen suspect's motive. The FBI confirmed the arrest and said in a statement it could not provide further information.

Meanwhile, Mark Shapiro, president and CEO of the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay said the threats and the arrest have taught him about leadership, community and resiliency.

Mark Shapiro

At the monthly Milwaukee Press Club luncheon on Thursday Shapiro spoke out.

"We're cautiously optimistic," said Shapiro. "The news of this morning in no way changes the realities of what we've faced over the last couple of weeks."

The wave of threats prompted the evacuation of hundreds of JCC's and synagogues across the nation since January.

The JCC in Whitefish Bay has been targeted -- with four threats since January 31st:

"It's yucky. It feels bad that we're living in a time where this stuff is happening," Shapiro said.

Since the threats, officials at the JCC in Whitefish Bay have added 24/7 surveillance to their facilities, and controlled access to the building.

"We are continuing to look at how we structure balance being an open, welcome and inclusive environment that creates a sense of safety," said Shapiro.

While some families have chosen to leave the JCC, Shapiro on Thursday reminded his community not to be afraid.

Mark Shapiro

"It is the month of Adar in the year 57,077 on our Hebrew calendar. We've had a lot bigger nut-balls try and take down the Jewish community over these last 57,077 years and there's no way we're going to let this happen under my watch at the JCC," said Shapiro.

Shapiro said they are always ready to welcome back those who have left the center.

As for the suspect, the teenager has a history of behavioral issues and was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor when he was 14, his attorney, Galit Besh, told CNN.

The suspect's father was detained and questioned in connection to the investigation, Besh said.

Shiraz Biton, a neighbor in the southern Israel city of Ashkelon, said that she has seen the suspect and his family a lot. The suspect was "quiet" and "introverted" and seemed a "little strange," she said.

"He was always alone," Biton said. "Him and his laptop."

In the US alone, more than 100 bomb threats have been made this year against Jewish community centers and schools. The threats were spread across 33 states and most came as part of five waves.

Though none of the threats was carried out, the calls and emails prompted evacuations and anxiety for many of the targets. Several instances of vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, though unrelated, heightened fears of anti-Semitism.