Multiple Threats to Synagogues in Wake of Tree of Life Shooting

Tree of Life synagogue

December 24, 2018

In the weeks and months following the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, reports have emerged of a series of attempted attacks against various synagogues and institutions across the country. While these attacks were thwarted, the Pittsburgh massacre remains a rallying cry for some hardened anti-Semites, who continue to celebrate the killings as “another holiday to add to the calendar.”

ADL believes it is critical that the public and law enforcement are aware of ongoing threats to the American Jewish community -- including, but not limited to, nascent attacks inspired by the Pittsburgh shooting.

ADL’s Center on Extremism (COE), which monitors trends in violent anti-Semitism and extremism, has confirmed four significant incidents targeting synagogues since Oct. 27, 2018, the day of the Pittsburgh shooting.  In each instance, law enforcement apprehended individuals who physically approached synagogues with violent or threatening intent.

The most serious threats to the Jewish community since the Pittsburgh shooting:

  • On Friday, Nov. 23, Mohamed Abdi Mohamed, a U.S. citizen from Somalia, allegedly attempted to run over two people outside a synagogue in a heavily populated Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles. No one was hurt. According to law enforcement reports, Mohamed was heard yelling “hateful remarks regarding Jewish heritage and regarding these people of faith.” He was arrested and booked on suspicion of felony assault with a deadly weapon (the car), and his case is being classified as a hate crime.
  • On Dec. 14, law enforcement officers in North Hollywood, California, arrested David Brener after he allegedly brandished a machete in a menacing manner with his face masked with a scarf while outside a synagogue.

In two other cases, extremists expressed support for the Pittsburgh shooting while allegedly planning their own attacks on synagogues.

  • Dakota Reed was arrested on December 7 at his mother’s home in Lake Forest Park, Washington. Authorities began to investigate Reed in late October, after the COE warned law enforcement about Reed’s violent threats about attacking synagogues. Reed made numerous online posts to social media under a variety of pseudonyms, including a call to “take back your future one synagogue at a time,” and an announcement that he would “make the news some more and shoot some Jews in 2025.” In other social media posts, he can be seen posing with semi-automatic rifles and making explicit threats about murdering Jewish people.
  • On December 10, law enforcement officers arrested Damon Joseph, who was allegedly planning a violent attack at a synagogue in Toledo, Ohio. Joseph, who was radicalized online and had pledged loyalty to ISIS, was inspired by Tree of Life synagogue shooter, Robert Bowers. He was arrested after telling an undercover agent that he supported “martyrdom operations” and that he admired “what the guy did with the shooting in Pittsburgh.” He also told an undercover agent he wanted to kill a rabbi. Joseph was arrested after a meeting with an undercover agent during which he accepted a black duffel bag containing what he believed were two semiautomatic rifles.

Also of note is white supremacist Jeffrey Clark, who was arrested in Washington, D.C., on November 9. He had obtained weapons and posted violent fantasies;about attacking Jews.

Clark wrote of his admiration for the Tree of Life synagogue shooter and “hero,” Robert Bowers: “The fucking kikes that got shot…deserved exactly what happened to them and much worse.” In the last two years, Clark and his recently deceased brother, Edward, participated in real-world white supremacist activism. Clark was charged with illegal transportation of a firearm across state lines, possession of an illegal high-capacity magazine, and unlawful use of a controlled substance (methamphetamine).

Synagogues have always been high-profile targets for those who want to attack Jews or commit incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism or harassment. ADL’s 2017 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents recorded 341 incidents against Jewish institutions, including synagogues. And the FBI documented 938 hate crimes against Jews and Jewish institutions in 2017.

In 2018, incidents of anti-Semitic harassment or vandalism of synagogues where there was no credible threat of violence include:  

  • October 27: A Jewish family walking into synagogue on Saturday in Boca Raton, Florida, was harassed by a man who repeatedly shouted “Heil Hitler” at them.
  • October 31:  A synagogue in Irvine, California, was vandalized with graffiti reading: “Fuck Jews Fuck.”
  • November 1-2:  James Polite was arrested for vandalizing a synagogue in Brooklyn, NY. The vandalism included hateful messages such as “Jews better be ready,” an epithet that called for the death of Jews, and references to Hitler. Polite also allegedly set several fires in and around Brooklyn synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses.
  • November 3: William Josephus Warden was arrested for harassing and threatening a synagogue in North Carolina, allegedly ringing the synagogue’s doorbell and making a disparaging statement about Jews.

Even memorials mourning the loss of life in Pittsburgh have become targets of anti-Semitic vandalism:

  • During the week of December 10, a memorial to the Pittsburgh shooting at Pomona College in Claremont, CA, which included the phrase “Antisemitism Exists: Acknowledge It” and images of Stars of David, was painted over with the phrase, “Palestine exists. Acknowledge it.” and a Palestinian flag. Although the memorial was painted on a “free speech wall,” which means that there was nothing illegal about painting over it, the new message reads as an implicit rebuke of a Jewish community that was still reeling from the Pittsburgh.
  • On November 18, a memorial for the Pittsburgh Tree of Life shooting created by Duke University students was vandalized with a red swastika. This marks the second anti-Semitic incident on Duke’s campus this year.
  • In early November, The Rock at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville was painted with swastikas and symbols used by neo-Nazi groups. This came less than two weeks after the University’s Hillel held a vigil at The Rock to honor the 11 worshippers killed in Pittsburgh.