As Jewish Pittsburgh prepares to enter the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, communal professionals and law enforcement warn “Zoom-bombing” is on the rise.
The incidents — which typically are referred to Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh security leaders, local police and the FBI — involve unknown individuals joining preplanned or publicly advertised Zoom events to make anti-Semitic remarks, post racial slurs in the session’s chat window, or take over as host and air pornography or other disturbing images. There have been at least three incidents in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community in 2021.
“We have seen on the ‘darknet,’ where there are groups trolling for Zoom presentations related to Judaism or being hosted by synagogues and Jewish community centers — their goal is to get onto these platforms and scare people,” said Shawn Brokos, director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “It’s done to promote ideologies, but it’s also used for sport — ‘Let’s scare as many Jews as possible today.’”
Brokos pointed to a Feb. 12 incident where University of Pittsburgh educators were discussing sexual and American Jewish history on Zoom with academics from the University of Virginia and Brandeis University. At one point, the event was infiltrated and unknown persons posted anti-Semitic imagery including swastikas, as well as anti-Semitic rants.
“Nothing like this has ever happened to me before,” said Rachel Kranson, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh who organized and participated in the event. “My first reaction was utter shock. Obviously I was aware of the scourge of anti-Semitic, racist, white supremacist attacks across the country and around the world, but I had never seen this kind of vicious behavior in a scholarly setting.
“When the Zoom-bombers started to disrupt the chat, audience members responded by inundating the chat with supportive comments so that people could no longer see the hateful words and symbols,” she added.
Brokos is familiar with white nationalist groups positioning themselves to target and intimidate Jews and trying to spread their ideology. Before she joined the Jewish Federation, Brokos worked as an FBI agent in Pittsburgh and Newark, New Jersey, for 24 years. As a supervisory special agent in the FBI’s Pittsburgh office, she managed complex investigations involving hate crimes. She estimates at least one Zoom-bombing is reported by Jewish Federations around the country each week.
Rabbi Ron Symons, the senior director of Jewish life at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, was the victim of a Zoom-bombing on Jan. 13.
Symons and others were discussing the Ibram X. Kendi book “How to Be An Anti-Racist,” when, 20 minutes into the presentation, unknown people “began spewing racist and anti-Semitic epithets,” Symons told the Chronicle. It happened again 20 minutes later.
“We have enough experience managing Zoom meetings that, within seconds, we were able to remove them and report them to Zoom,” Symons said.
“That type of, essentially, verbal abuse is disconcerting but we know, right here in our Jewish community, that sometimes it goes beyond verbal,” he added. “It gave us a taste of what the mandate is. We have to continue our mission. The goal is to keep spreading this message: ‘We all have to live together.’ That’s what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.”
Dozens of people experienced a Zoom-bombing on Feb. 6 when New Light Congregation hosted a “Choral Torah” performance and Havdalah service on the virtual platform. More than 80 people were registered to attend, but New Light, which advertised the event on Facebook, was not aware it had to change a default password for hosting the event, said Stephen Cohen, the congregation’s co-president.
“About 18 minutes in, somebody took over as host and started showing porn,” Cohen told the Chronicle. “It took a good five minutes to figure out how to remove the person or people.”
“I guess the better lesson is you really need to understand the security features of Zoom if you’re going to put on a semi-public event,” Cohen added. “We learned our lesson. It wasn’t mean, somebody saying derogatory things or showing Hitler. Our reaction, right now, would be very different if it was something of that kind.”
In 2020, the Jewish Federation was made aware of four incidents of Zoom-bombing, all of them occurring after the COVID-19 pandemic in March forced businesses and congregations to use virtual platforms, Brokos said. Gemilas Chesed in White Oak and the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh were among those targeted.
“Sometimes it’s the video, sometimes it’s the audio — we’ve seen both,” Brokos said. “To actually figure out who did this is tough. It falls to law enforcement because others cannot find who’s involved.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.