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Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Rabbi Craig Lewis leads the Rosh Hashanah service at Mizpah Congregation on Sept 30, 2019.

This month, Jewish residents across Chattanooga received vague emails from their rabbis.

The messages, signed by either Rabbi Susan Tendler of B'nai Zion Congregation or Rabbi Craig Lewis of Mizpah Congregation, read, "I need a favor from you, email me as soon as you get this message."

People who responded were told to buy gift cards, then email the card numbers and PINs to their rabbis.

But the emails local Jews received were not from their rabbis. They were from scammers.

Tendler and Lewis were hacked as part of what appears to be a nationwide extortion scheme. Unlike other phishing scams where emails are sent with a link or attachment and no other context, the hackers were specific. They created fake Gmail accounts in the rabbis' names and sent messages to their entire email list with the Hebrew greeting "shalom aleichem" in the subject line.

Lewis said Mizpah Congregation regularly sends out emails asking for donations, such as gift cards or other items, for charity work. But the congregation tells people to drop their donations off in person, never to send the information digitally.

"They're taking advantage of the trust people place in their clergy," Lewis said. "They're trying to capitalize on people's willingness to help. That's what's most upsetting about this."

READ MORE: After anti-Semitic attack in New York, Chattanooga's Jewish community echoes call for vigilance and security

Lewis found out about the scam when his temple's president texted him on Jan. 15. The president had received the vague email asking for help and said he was nearby if the rabbi needed anything. Lewis had no idea what he was talking about.

The attack is another step in the movement to erode trust and discredit religious institutions, Tendler said.

"That line was crossed," she said. "Now, they're being targeted. Religion is still the place you turn to in times of crisis. It's a rock. — And now, in this moment where religious institutions are being targeted, it wears away at our places of refuge because it's creating a lack of security in religion."

Ann Treadwell, program director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, said her organization was not targeted this month but has been targeted in previous years with email scams.

However, Tendler and Lewis said they have heard of similar scams happening to rabbis across the country, from Georgia to North Carolina, Arkansas and New Mexico. Tendler notified the Anti-Defamation League.

Allison Padilla-Goodman, southern regional director for the ADL, said her organization is aware of the incidents and is investigating.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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