Bomb-scare bar mitzvah ends joyfully at Emanu-El

A bomb scare outside Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco during Dylan Zuber’s bar mitzvah last weekend had a happy ending — so happy, in fact, that Dylan’s friends signed the mazel tov poster at his party with phrases like “Had a blast” and “Your bar mitzvah was the bomb.”

For a while on the morning of March 19, however, no one realized the outcome would allow everyone to be so light-hearted.

The scare began just before 9:30 a.m., when someone spotted a brand-new backpack in a garbage can on the curb outside Emanu-El.

“I was told there was something suspicious about it, that it was new and had aerosol cans inside or something,” said Emanu-El Rabbi Yoni Jaffe.

An SFPD bomb squad sets up operations in the middle of Lake Street. photo/maayan cohen

A 911 call was made to the San Francisco Police Department, and in short order, the area was teeming with police officers, fire trucks and the bomb squad. Nearby streets and sidewalks were taped off, and several Muni lines were re-routed.

Meanwhile, inside the sanctuary, Shabbat services and Dylan’s bar mitzvah were beginning. Having gone inside early to take pictures, the family was there, but in total, only about 15 people were inside the huge hall when services started.

Paul and Sandy Zuber, of Mill Valley, fretted that with the bomb scare and the lack of people in attendance, their son’s big day was going to be ruined. Sandy Zuber had to fight back tears.

Outside, around 100 congregants and bar mitzvah guests were being prevented from entering the synagogue; some were told it wasn’t safe to stay nearby, and others apparently were told that the sanctuary had been evacuated. Some stuck around for more than two hours, but others gave up and left. Also, rumors began circulating about the backpack — that it contained a bunch of wires and CDs, or aerosol cans.

Slowly, a few people trickled into the sanctuary. Some found an accessible but remote entrance on Lake Street; then kids from Hebrew school classes and adults from a Torah study group joined in.

“Every time a few more people came in, I’d nudge Dylan and he started feeling the energy,” Sandy Zuber said.

Dylan recited his Torah portion, and Jaffe and musical soloist Marsha Attie did their best to keep the service positive and light-hearted. For his part, Dylan, who turned 13 last September, remained calm.

“I wasn’t shaken,” he said. “It was more like: I’ve been preparing for this for a while, so nothing is going to rattle me.”

Forty-five minutes into the service, however, everyone was told to evacuate the sanctuary and relocate to safer environs, Guild Hall, a reception hall on the lower level.

Outside, the bomb squad — using a robot — was getting ready to explode the backpack.

Dylan Zuber inside the Congregation Emanu-El sanctuary. 

“Dylan had finished his Torah portion, and for precaution’s sake, we were told to head downstairs, underground,” Jaffe said. “We left the Torahs in the ark, went down to Guild Hall and in a very haimish way, everyone grabbed chairs and helped set up the room.”

“It was a scene like Anatevka as people walked silently down the stairs and passed around chairs in the room,” Sandy Zuber said. “It was actually a pretty amazing experience, an incredible feeling of community and closeness. It turned out to be pretty much the most Jewish experience you could have.”

The bomb squad blew up the backpack, and here’s what was discovered inside, according to the police report: a notebook, a T-shirt, a phone charger, a CD, a baseball cap, deodorant, an umbrella and a bail-bond receipt. A police spokesman said the case is closed.

Finally, at about 12:45 p.m., the all-clear was given and people were allowed through the synagogue’s main entrances. Some made it in time for Dylan’s Haftorah portion and his dvar Torah — both of which he delivered over a platter of melon on a table in Guild Hall (which had been set up for the Kiddush).

“Everyone responded very well. His family was so easy-going, and it was nice how [the situation] created a lot of camaraderie and good spirit,” Jaffe said. “And this was a wonderfully prepared student who couldn’t have possibly been shaken by anything. I kept saying to him that this is a bar mitzvah he’ll never forget.”

Dylan, a seventh-grader at Mt. Tamalpais School in Mill Valley, couldn’t help but agree. And the events of the day certainly made for a big topic of conversation at his party later that night at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.

“It was definitely one of the most memorable experiences ever for me,” he said. “Everyone who was there will be like: ‘Wow, it was a one in a million bar mitzvah.’”

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.