Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh
Tree of Life Synagogue in PittsburghReuters

A real-life synagogue bomb threat of the type that plagued Jewish congregations for much of last year was dramatized in an ad during Sunday’s Academy Awards, the most-watched non-football television broadcast in the United States.

The spot was placed by Robert Kraft’s Foundation to Combat Antisemitism, which also ran an ad during last month’s Super Bowl. Both ads depict relations between Jews and other groups, in keeping with the foundation’s mission of raising awareness of antisemitism among non-Jewish audiences.

The 60-second Oscars ad depicted what happened in Attleboro, Massachusetts, last fall when Congregation Agudas Achim, a Reconstructionist synagogue, was evacuated because of a bomb threat. A nearby church took the congregation in, allowing a bat mitzvah service to continue after an interruption.

The ad, titled “Neighbors,” begins with a bar mitzvah being called to the Torah by two rabbis, played by real-life rabbis Michael Dolgin and Aviva Rajsky. The opening words of the Torah blessing are chanted as police sirens fade in, and the sanctuary fills with flashing lights. The rabbi instructs everyone to evacuate and police officers storm the building, a bomb-sniffing dog in tow.

It is nighttime. A newscaster’s voice can be heard explaining: “The threat says, ‘Bombs will blow up tonight. Jews will die. They deserve to die.” The congregants gather outside, carrying the Torah scrolls from the service, until the pastor from the church across the street tells the rabbi, “Just come to our church.”

Once inside, the bar mitzvah boy, whose name is Elliott, appears dispirited until a boy about his age from the church community sits down beside him in a show of solidarity. The ad concludes with Elliot preparing to resume his bar mitzvah under the shadow of a stained-glass window with a cross at its center. A message appears on the screen: “Hate loses when we stand together.”

The depiction alters some elements of the real-life incident it depicts, including by setting it at night, when the Torah is not traditionally read in synagogues. But it borrows heavily from what really happened in Attleboro, when the Evangelical Covenant Church located across Main Street from Agudas Achim welcomed in Jews displaced by a bomb threat at the synagogue. The town is located just 10 miles from the southern Massachusetts town where Kraft’s New England Patriots compete.

Agudas Achim was one of several synagogues to receive emailed threats that Saturday and among hundreds to have received the threats last year. The ad, relying on data compiled by the Jewish nonprofit Secure Community Network, says that 895 synagogues received bomb threats in 2023.

Indeed, the kind of disruption depicted in the ad played out recently in a wide range of Jewish communities, including during the High Holidays last fall.

The real-life incident took place Oct. 14, 2023, one week after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. But even as reports of antisemitic incidents were spiking at the time in the wake of the attack and the new war, the incident was likely unrelated. The string of bomb threats began well before the war and continued throughout the fall, despite multiple arrests of people the FBI said had contributed.

The Secure Community Network told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last month that bomb threats had continued into the new year, with the group recording 281 “swatting incidents and false bomb threats” targeting Jewish communities in January alone.

The Foundation to Combat Antisemitism ad was filmed Jan. 17 at Toronto’s historic Kiever Synagogue, according to the Canadian Jewish News. In an interview with the CJN, Dolgin, who leads a different Toronto congregation, said the commercial’s director told him that “even if we affect and change one person’s mind, then this will all have been worth it.”

The foundation’s Super Bowl ad, which starred Martin Luther King Jr.’s former speechwriter Clarence B. Jones, drew mixed reviews. The American Jewish Committee called it “powerful” and one Facebook user said it was “the best ad from the Super Bowl,” but others were less impressed.

Shmuley Boteach, the Republican activist, author and self-styled “America’s Rabbi,” wrote on Facebook that the ad was a “complete failure.” Some of the criticism, including from Boteach, highlighted that the ad, titled “Silence,” had focused too much on other forms of hate rather than placing the spotlight more clearly on antisemitism.

Prior to the Super Bowl, Tara Levine, the president of the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that connecting antisemitism to other forms of discrimination was a deliberate strategy.

“It centers around this concept that all hate thrives on the silence of others, and it puts Jewish hate squarely in conversation with other forms of hate,” Levine said about the Super Bowl ad.

This year’s Super Bowl broke the all-time viewership record for any television broadcast with 123.4 million viewers. Meanwhile, last year’s Oscars ceremony drew 19.4 million viewers, the 15th most-watched broadcast of 2023, and the only non-NFL game in the top 21.