Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park experienced a graphic, anti-Semitic Zoom bombing during a Shabbat morning service on June 27.
The Zoom gathering started smoothly at 9:30 a.m. Several participants were attending as guests.
“We were having a simcha to celebrate one of our member’s birthdays. Because we were Zooming, it allowed for this member’s family from Israel and California to also be online,” said Rabbi Shai Cherry, who was leading the service.
Suddenly, five or six faceless Zoom tiles displaying unfamiliar names joined the meeting.
“That began a litany of expletives and vile references to people that they identified on the screen,” Vice President David Seltzer said. “People were calling out people by name on screen, calling the worst possible names you could imagine.”
The attackers also posted graphic photos.
“When I first noticed something awry, there was a profile picture of a penis,” Cherry said.
He removed the offending participant from the Zoom, but the stream of graphic, anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist messages in the chat box continued.
“They also threw up my address, as if to intimidate me with their knowledge of my personal address,” Cherry said. “What seems to have happened is that there were multiple devices being used, so even though we exiled the first perpetrator to the waiting room and then removed him altogether, either there were multiple perpetrators or there was a single perpetrator with multiple devices.”
The Zoom bombing, which Seltzer described as a “shock and awe campaign of misery,” lasted a few minutes, but felt much longer to the targets. Eventually, Cherry, Seltzer and Hazzan Howard Glantz decided to pause the service and have congregants sign in to a different meeting altogether.
It worked, and the service continued. Many of the congregants who joined later had no idea what had taken place mere minutes before.
“Everyone experienced it as unsettling, but nobody perceived it as scary or dangerous or felt personally threatened, so these were cowards engaging in relatively low-tech bluster,” Cherry said.
Still, many participants were shaken.
“We have members of our congregation who are senior citizens, who are maybe not used to this kind of language and certainly not the visual and graphic visuals that were displayed,” Seltzer said.
These incidents have become increasingly common as the coronavirus pandemic forces Jewish community events online, where they are vulnerable to cyberattacks. It was the first Zoom bombing to take place at an Adath Jeshurun event.
Seltzer said it was an example of endemic hate and anti-Semitism adapting to the pandemic era.
“It’s a risk, if you will, of the COVID-19 virus that has put us all out of the building,” he said. “[Zoom] is the only way that we can assemble as a community for services, administration, things of that nature, and so we’re at risk of things that would probably not be happening if we were able to gather together.”
For Cherry, a retired university professor, targeted displays of anti-Semitism are unfortunately familiar. He experienced a particularly severe incident the day after the 2016 election.
“At my last school, the University of San Diego, someone defecated in front of my office door, and there were swastikas put up in the bathroom stalls in the bathrooms next to where I taught my Holocaust class,” he said. “This kind of cowardly intimidation is not new.”
Judy Izes, president of Adath Jeshurun, responded to the Zoom bombing in a newsletter to the congregation.
“Sadly, this past Shabbat, our atmosphere was pierced by those wishing to undermine its holiness. We have been advised that other shuls and Jewish institutions have experienced unwelcome intruders to Zoom services and events,” she wrote.
Izes said the waiting room feature on Zoom had been effective in preventing unwelcome visitors up until this incident. Now, the congregation will send passwords for Shabbat services to members as an extra security measure.
Adath Jeshurun will also record future services for security reasons.
“Halachically, we weren’t comfortable recording our Shabbat services, but we have gotten over that for the sake of protection,” Cherry said.
The synagogue reported the incident to the Secure Community Network, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring the safety and security of the American Jewish community. They have been in close contact with the Anti-Defamation League of Southeastern Pennsylvania, which has been tracking anti-Semitic Zoom bombings since coronavirus shutdowns began in March.
The synagogue also contacted the Cheltenham Township Police Department and the Montgomery County District Attorney, which will collaborate in an effort to identify the perpetrators.
“Although our Shabbat peace was interrupted, our service and davening continued,” Izes wrote. “We will continue to be vigilant.”