Alabama Jewish community: Zoom call hacked with antisemitic bigotry

Montgomery, AL - Rabbi Scott Kramer on Saturday evening was preparing to introduce the High Holy Days, a time for reflection, repentance and atonement as Rosh Hashanah approaches. 

The rabbi, of synagogue Agudath Israel Etz Ahayem, began the call at 7:30 p.m. with about 50 congregants from communities across Montgomery, Auburn, Dothan and Mobile. It was one of the few times he held the meeting by Zoom, a popular video conferencing platform, so those in attendance could openly share their feelings and goals for the coming year. 

"It's very cathartic, very soothing when we're all together," the rabbi said. "We've been meeting long distance for several months and haven't had any issues."

Until they did.

 

A short time after the meeting began, at least two or three unknown people popped into the meeting. The rabbi thinks it was closer to six or seven, but can't be sure. Much to their shock, the members were bombarded with anti-Semitic imagery and iconography. 

"Screens came up of very shocking imagery of Hitler, swastikas and I thought some pornographic images," he said. "It was chaotic. Then voices came in screaming at everyone using bad language, anti-Semitic language, telling us 'you should go back to the showers,' which is of course a reference to the Holocaust."

Micki Beth Stiller, a board of trustee member at Temple Beth Or, was on the call when the chaos began. 

"All of a sudden, in the middle of the service, comes this stuff on the line," she said. "All of a sudden, clips of Hitler, the N-word, 'f----t Jew' and disparaging things coming on the screen. At one point, just as the Mobile rabbi was getting starting to say something, there was a direct attack on him."

Suffering some sexism working as a woman in court rooms, Stiller said until the Saturday incident that's the most harassment she's ever experienced. 

"It was shocking to me. For 72 years, nothing like this has ever occurred to me," she said. "It was just stunning. It feels like you've been violated."

The harassment went on for nearly 10 minutes before Rabbi Kramer was able to shut down the call, ending the horror that was flashing before their eyes. 

Trying to salvage the situation, the rabbi restarted the call to check on the members and to continue honoring the High Holy Days.

"They came back," he said. "It was my fault, we used the same Zoom ID. We were eventually able to remove them and continue the service with everyone sitting there crying, including me."

It's undeniable that the rabbi and his call were "zoombombed," a phenomenon that began shortly after the onset of the pandemic with the rise of video conferencing. People taking advantage of security flaws began dropping in to video conferences sharing inappropriate content, at times with children present. The rabbi said he's had phone conversations with police and the FBI about the incident. 

Rabbi Kramer was thankful there weren't many children on the call Saturday except for a few teens with their parents. 

"Had there been youngsters there, that would have freaked us out even more," he said. "But parents are worried because our religious school is online."

Shortly after the incident, Phillip Ensler, president of the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama, emailed members of the federation condemning the actions of the hackers and reminding congregants that "anti-Semitism and bigotry are not threats of the distant past, but a harsh reality that we must vigilantly guard against everyday."

Several days later, the incident has preyed on the community's minds. 

"We're still reeling from this," the rabbi said, between several pauses and deep breaths to gather himself. "Most people have not experienced this before, I had never experienced this before. It’s a gut punch."

Ensler on Tuesday said the incident is an unfortunate continuation of what Jews have been subjected to throughout life. 

"This is obviously really traumatizing and has shaken people," he said by phone. "Unfortunately Jews have been dealing with this for thousands of years. Especially with the holidays coming up, we will continue to do what we've always done. Be proud of who we are and stick together. The people who think they're going to scare us, this is just motivation for us to do even more good in the world."

The rabbi had no message for those who perpetrated the vile acts. 

"I am sorry for whatever these people lack in their lives and why they feel they need to prey on others that cannot defend themselves, but unfortunately we’re seeing this all over the country," he said. "To the people that attend synagogues, we need to go about everything as if it’s normal, because if we don’t the white supremacists win."

Moving forward, Rabbi Kramer said he's engaged the help of others in the community to secure any future Zoom calls using FBI recommendations

As Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approach, the two biggest holidays for the Jewish community, Rabbi Kramer hopes other leaders across the state and outside of Alabama will take security seriously. 

"You probably should have somebody who is technologically astute who can monitor your Zoom sessions," he said, giving guidance to other Jewish leaders. "Follow the recommendations the FBI has for Zoom. And take it seriously. This can happen, to anyone, not just synagogues, to churches, mosques, anybody. I fear not just for the Jewish community, but for everyone."