When I was 5, I found a bomb in my synagogue

The author at a young age.

Story highlights

  • Eric Levenson is an associate writer for CNN
  • This is his personal account of an event that happened in 1997

A series of bomb threats have rattled Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) across the country over the past few weeks, sparking evacuations, presidential denouncements, and what some have called "telephone terrorism."

In each case, JCC leaders have taken the bomb threat seriously and evacuated the building.
That makes sense to me. When I was a little kid, I found a bomb at my synagogue.
It was Feb. 22, 1997, and I was a precocious 5-year-old boy in Jacksonville, Florida. That Saturday, as was pretty typical, my family attended services at the Jacksonville Jewish Center, which doubled as my synagogue and Jewish day school.
Antsy and bored, my older brother and I left the main service room to play hide-and-seek in the hallway with a couple of friends. Lining the wall of the hallway were about a dozen large memorial plaques. I hid in a small nook between two of them.
There, I found a small item -- a pipe with some tape wrapped around it. I gave up hide-and-seek and showed my brother and our friends. We started playing with the thing, tossing it around and unwrapping the tape. I remember one friend said it could be an atom bomb. We laughed.
Then an adult came and took it away. That's my personal perspective.
Here's another perspective, courtesy of The New York Times: A man had placed a bomb in my synagogue a week earlier, and I was the one who finally discovered it.
Yep, that's me, one of the children who found the bomb. I survived, of course, as did everyone involved.
I remember later speaking to some large men in suits who interviewed me. And there was a sketch artist who turned my childish descriptions into a really accurate drawing of the bomb.
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For 20 years now, I've told this story to friends, usually in the form of a "fun fact" during the icebreaker game "two truths and a lie."
"I'm originally from Florida. I've never left the United States. And I once found a bomb as a kid." (The second is the lie.) It was generally a good conversation starter and made for a memorable introduction.
In retrospect, it's not quite as neat as I thought at the time. The full story, as detailed in press reports at the time and in the book "Jew Vs. Jew," goes like this:
Nine days before our childish discovery, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres had planned to give a speech at my synagogue. Harry Shapiro, an Orthodox Jewish man who opposed Peres' policies, later admitted in federal court that he placed the pipe bomb in the synagogue.
Shapiro then called in a bomb threat to police -- he claimed he was with the American Friends of Islamic Jihad -- all in an attempt to get the speech canceled.
Police searched the building but didn't find the bomb, and the speech went on as planned. Shapiro was arrested, and he pleaded guilty to one federal charge. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The pipe bomb did contain gunpowder, experts with the FBI said. But Shapiro's defense attorney argued that the bomb had intentionally been a dud.
It's been 20 years to the day since I found that bomb. But all this time later, the same concerns color how Jewish centers have reacted to these threats around the country.