While some in the Myrtle Beach Jewish community are on edge after recent national anti-Semitic threats and an alleged threat naming a local synagogue, its leaders say they’re taking extra precautions – but also stressing that life goes on – while keeping their traditions going strong.
Rabbi Avi Perets of Temple Emanu-El off 65th Avenue North and Kings Highway in Myrtle Beach was shocked when authorities alerted him about a threat allegedly made by a Conway-area man. Officials said Benjamin McDowell, 29, of Conway, also wrote hateful speech, including anti-Semitic comments, was allegedly planning an attack “in the spirit of Dylann Roof,” and bought a gun from an undercover FBI agent, court documents state.
On Dec. 26, McDowell wrote in a Facebook post: “I love love to act what u think” and linked to the Temple Emanu-El Myrtle Beach Conservative Synagogue, according to court papers.
“The first reaction was shocking, obviously because we didn’t expect it. We’ve never had an incident like that here,” Perets said and added that the FBI assured him that they were being protected and many measures were in place to ensure their safety.
He said in the 15 years he’s served the community he’s never encountered any such threat or anti-Semitic acts.
He said while there has been concern and an elevation in their security, there’s also been an outpouring of support and on the first Saturday service after the news broke about McDowell’s alleged threat, attendance swelled to the largest numbers Perets has ever seen.
“We just had so many people coming because they wanted to show their support. That was really heartwarming to see the community saying … ‘We are here with you. We are not going anywhere. We care about this Temple.’ ” he said. “We feel like one big family, so in time of troubles, people are coming together, and that’s what we saw.”
Perets said Judaism has endured much tribulation and persecution in its long history, and while the recent scare has rattled them, they’re going to continue to worship and hold services.
“We are stronger now,” he said. “We are united, and … we are going to continue to flourish.”
While the congregation will carry on, he said they are increasing their security measures while striving to find the balance between being a welcoming place of worship and keeping everyone safe. More security also comes with the burden of cost, and Perets said Temple Emanu-El has established a “defense fund” and is inviting all friends, members and supporters who wish to help to contact them to donate.
Perets said the FBI alerted him about McDowell during their investigation, but he has been asked not to talk about the details of the case. He said through the alarming experience he feels very grateful to God, who he credited as saving them, and law enforcement.
“May God bless them and their families …” he said of the authorities. “Sometimes people undervalue their service, but when you have a situation like that and you see how much they work, their devotion, the time, the hours that they spend and they were here many hours protecting us and investigating, you really get a sense of appreciation for the law in our society.”
He said he’s also touched by the support he’s seen from local leaders like U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, and from national leaders such as President Donald Trump, who condemned the recent wave of bomb threats at Jewish community centers across the country.
“For us, we believe that education to tolerance starts at the top with the leaders of the country,” Perets said.
Other voices from the Myrtle Beach-area Jewish Community
Rabbi David Weissman of Temple Shalom, on Belle Terre Boulevard in the Myrtle Beach area, said there has been some concern among members there since the news of Temple Emanu-El being named in an alleged threat and with the national wave of anti-Semitism.
While he has taken some extra security measures and increased vigilance, he said overall they’ve been continuing normally there. Weissman also stressed the importance of carrying on with their traditions.
“We have a little concern, but you know, you have to go on and live your life,” he said. “You can’t hide from it, so we have services every Friday night and every Saturday morning, and we just go on. We can’t abandon our services out of fear, and so life goes on.”
Weissman said there haven’t been any threats at their facility and said he hasn’t personally experienced anti-Semitism locally.
“I find Myrtle Beach to be a very [tolerant] area and very friendly area and as a Rabbi I feel very welcome in this community,” Weissman said.
He said the recent national anti-Semitism has been concerning and said it seemed contrary to the inclusive American culture.
“You have to be vigilant, but you have to go on with your life. … We all have to have respect for each other’s traditions and backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions. That’s part of the American way.”
At the Chabad Jewish Academy on North Oak Street in Myrtle Beach, Leah Aizenman, head of school, said they’re addressing safety and have had concerns from parents. She said they realize the importance of protecting the campus, but also want to keep it a positive environment for the children with sustainable, long-term security.
“There’s more concern now,” she said. “The school’s role is not to be reactionary, but channel that interest, enthusiasm and willingness, and energy to help toward a long-term sustainable effort.”
Aizenman said security has always been in place there, but the school’s safety and security committee recently grew from three members to nine members. She also said they’ve reached out to security experts for consolation, and stressed the importance of not adopting one-time measures while instead having a permanent, manageable system in place.
Aizenman said since the national threats Myrtle Beach police have stepped up their patrols there and been very watchful over the school.
“We are so grateful to the Myrtle Beach Police Department,” she said.
One of the first projects on the school’s list of increasing safety is to build a barrier around the property. A fence seems like a reasonable balance between security and not hindering the children’s enjoyment there, especially because it will be one that isn’t “harsh-looking,” Aizenman said.
Cost is a factor for them as well, and while they have a commitment for the start of the project, they are looking to find the resources that will allow them to continue building a barrier and implementing other new security measures.
She stressed that while safety is key, it’s also important that the school maintain its goal of providing a positive environment for the children to learn and thrive.
“Yes, we will secure our campus, but we will not take away from what they need to enjoy life,” she said.
Her husband, Rabbi Doron Aizenman, the school Rabbi and a director there, said while it is somewhat surprising to have a threat in South Carolina, it’s not shocking considering Judaism’s history of tribulation.
However, he said while concern is natural and safety is important, the Rabbi said he is optimistic overall.