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A bomb threat that police later deemed fake forced the evacuation of Salt Lake City's I.J. and Jeanné Wagner Jewish Community Center on Tuesday morning, one of a series of threats to Jewish centers nationwide.
Groups tracking the threats say they targeted the Jewish community, with at least 17 confirmed bomb scares at centers Tuesday.
Some Jewish Salt Lake residents said the call to the JCC, which comes amid an uptick in threats nationally this year, has had an unsettling effect.
"On the one hand, I think these are threats; they're not really going to do it," said JCC member Sarah Shechter. "But then you never know if you get the one crazy person who is really, really crazy and will carry through with the threat."
She pointed to the weekend attack on a mosque in Quebec City that left six people dead. "It just erodes the confidence you have that you can just go about your daily life," she said.
JCC employees said their day began normally Tuesday. The facility home to a preschool and kindergarten as well as workout facilities was filled with children and others who were there to exercise indoors as the Salt Lake Valley's air quality outside remained at unhealthy levels.
Doug Hill, a longtime personal trainer at the center, was on the first floor when an employee who apparently received the threat via phone alerted visitors and employees of the call.
After the rash of threats nationally and recent warnings that the threatening behavior would continue, the center's employees had updated evacuation plans.
"They've been preparing us for the possibility for the last few weeks," Hill said.
About 300 people among them 220 students and 80 staffers were taken to the warmth of nearby University Hospital, police said.
The evacuation was by word of mouth. After the children were moved to the hospital, parents streamed in to meet them.
Salt Lake City police responded to the JCC at 9:24 a.m. Officers were dispatched to assess the threat. Shortly before 11 a.m., a bomb-sniffing dog was seen entering the building, located at 2 N. Medical Drive.
As they were responding to the call, police recognized it matched similar threats that have become nearly routine within the Jewish community in recent weeks.
"This might be part of a larger incident that's happening across the nation," Salt Lake City police Detective Greg Wilking said. "Other places across the nation have received bomb threats as well; other locations that are related to the Jewish community."
By the time police declared the scene cleared and safe for students and center employees to return at 12:40 p.m., Paul Goldenberg, national director of Secure Community Network, a New York-based nonprofit that advises Jewish community groups on security, was tallying up the day's threats and evacuations nationwide.
Centers in Minneapolis, San Diego, Albany, New York, Boulder, Colo., and New Haven, Conn. were among those evacuated due to bomb threats Tuesday.
"We're at 17, which makes, since Jan. 4, unfortunately we're up to 65," Goldenberg said.
On Jan. 18, the Anti-Defamation League had issued a nationwide "security advisory" to Jewish institutions. Just last week, Jewish properties reported receiving nearly 30 bomb threats in at least 18 states.
That has led to a civil rights investigation by the FBI, whose agents also responded to the Salt Lake City JCC on Tuesday, FBI spokeswoman Sandra Barker said.
Goldenberg said his group has been in frequent touch with what he described as senior officials at the FBI as part of the investigation.
As Goldenberg was adding the Salt Lake City JCC to the running tally of threatened sites for the day and month, local members were lamenting the impact such a threat might have on the community.
Same Lohse, who isn't Jewish, went to preschool at a separate JCC in Salt Lake City when he was younger. He has been a member for 20 years, having spent time swimming, working out and playing basketball at the center.
While Lohse, 21, had heard about the spike in anti-Semitic rhetoric elsewhere, he said the thought of the local JCC being targeted never seemed real before Tuesday.
"Salt Lake City is not like a big city or major hub or anything like that," Lohse said. "It's just kind of scary. It's a preschool and there's a lot of young kids there. It's just a lot of family-oriented activities. It's just scary."
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