Three local synagogues received and/or reported what were deemed “suspicious packages” on Dec. 17 that required Hazardous Materials teams and emergency medical service personnel to be dispatched.
“The letters appear to be similar in nature and do not convey any type of threat,” Baltimore County stated on its website about the synagogues, which are affiliated with the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism.
Pikesville’s Beth El Synagogue received an all-clear after Baltimore County Fire Department officials announced that Hazmat teams and other emergency personnel were dispatched to the congregation at 8101 Park Heights Ave. at approximately 12:45 p.m.
The Hazmat teams and other emergency crews were reportedly called in after several people at one of Beth El’s administrative offices became mildly ill after a “suspicious package” was opened.
“We received a call from the school for a possible hazardous materials incident,” said Baltimore County Fire Department spokeswoman Elise Armacost. “Basically what happened is two people, both adults, were in a room in the school when they opened some kind of envelope that I believe arrived through the mail, and they immediately began complaining of feeling ill.”
Fire officials reported that the symptoms included dizziness and nausea, but the adults’ conditions were improving.
In a statement, Beth El President Denise F. Franz, Senior Rabbi Steven Schwartz and Executive Director Joshua W. Bender explained, “We followed our internal protocols and procedures including calling 911. Staff members were evacuated from the synagogue administrative offices, and based on guidance from the Police and other professional experts, all of our students remained safe in their classrooms with their teachers.
“In coordination with the Police and Fire Departments, we set up a dismissal system for parents and grandparents who wished to pick up their children or grandchildren. After thorough and complete assessments from the Baltimore County Police and their Hazmat team, no dangerous substances or materials were found, and we were given the all clear.
“We are grateful to the entire Beth El staff including the teachers who responded quickly and efficiently to the situation at hand. We also want to thank the Baltimore County Police and Fire Departments and all of their teams for their swift response and for their guidance and support throughout the ordeal. … We will always err of the side of caution whenever there’s the possibility of a risk or threat. The security and safety or our Beth El community is paramount.”
Del. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-11th) said she was informed by Capt. Brandon Rogers, commander of Precinct 4-Pikesville of the Baltimore County Police Department, that nothing hazardous was found in the mail by the Hazmat team, but the envelope was sent to an FBI laboratory for further analysis.
In addition to the incident at Beth El, Hazmat and medical units were dispatched to the Beth Isaac Adath Israel Congregation, at 4398 Crest Heights Rd. in Pikesville’s Milbrook neighborhood, at 2:45 p.m. in response to another suspicious package.
There were no injuries reported, and Hazmat crews found no evidence of hazardous materials at Beth Isaac, also known as the “Milbrook Shul.” The synagogue is also the home of Mesivta Ne’imus HaTorah, a yeshiva for grades 9-12.
Shortly after 4 p.m., Baltimore County police officers were called to Owings Mills’ Har Sinai Congregation to examine a suspicious envelope received by that synagogue one week ago. Police said the temple, at the 2900 block of Walnut Ave., became concerned about the package and reported it to police after learning of the incident at Beth El.
Police said the envelope did not contain any hazardous substances and did not convey any type of threat.
According to a Facebook posting by the Northwest Baltimore patrol group Shomrim of Baltimore, the envelope sent to Beth El was from Dallas, containing Christian religious information, and post-dated Dec. 11. According to media reports, the letter sent to Beth El included the message: “If you died right now, do you know for sure that you would go to heaven? Jesus is the answer.”
Hazmat crews scanned Beth El’s facility with meters for chemicals and gases but determined that nothing significant was detected. According to media reports, 33 staff members and 78 children remained in the Beth El school during the investigation.
With more than 1,700 families and individuals, Beth El is the largest Jewish congregation in the area.
The incidents at Beth El, Beth Isaac and Har Sinai came after a wave of bomb threats prompted evacuations and caused panic in recent days at congregations, community centers, businesses, schools, hospitals and other places across North America. None of the threats appeared to be credible, according to law enforcement authorities.
Synagogues around the nation have been on high alert since Oct. 27 when a gunman opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue and killed 11 people, the deadliest attack in American Jewish history. Last week, a man was arrested and charged with planning an attack on a Jewish congregation in Toledo, Oh. The suspect expressed admiration for the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter.
Baltimore County police said the investigation into the letters is ongoing.
Here’s the original Baltimore County Fire Department tweet:
EMS, Hazmat crews now o/s at the Beth El School, 8100 blk Park Heights Ave., #Pikesville. Several people report symptoms of illness after opening a suspicious package. EMS crews evaluating. DT 1245^EA^EA
— Baltimore County Fire Department (@BaltCoFire) December 17, 2018
This article will be updated as more information becomes available. Editor-in-Chief Alan Feiler contributed to this report.
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