The state of Jewish community security — with a focus on the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting of 2018 — was examined during an Oct. 22 webinar hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and moderated by the host of CNN’s “New Day,” Alisyn Camerota.
The program, “Two Years Since the Attack on Pittsburgh: The Evolution & Future of Securing the Jewish Community,” was co-sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the Secure Community Network and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. It featured national security experts as well as survivors of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers and Stephen Weiss.
The program came less than a week before the two-year commemoration of the massacre at the Tree of Life building.
Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh President and CEO Jeff Finkelstein opened the webinar by naming the 11 individuals murdered during the Oct. 27, 2018, attack.
During the program’s first segment, Finkelstein, Myers and Weiss were joined by Brad Orsini, former community security director of Pittsburgh’s Federation, now senior national security advisor of the Secure Community Network.
Myers, spiritual leader of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, recalled the training Orsini provided the Jewish community before Oct. 27, 2018. When recounting Orsini’s advice to carry a cellphone, even on Shabbat, Myers said, “I am alive today partially because of Brad Orsini.”
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of the Tree of Life,” said Orsini, who stressed the importance of security training for the Jewish community. Camerota pointed out that during the two years before the attack at the Tree of Life building, Orsini had completed 45 security assessments at various Pittsburgh Jewish facilities and trained more than 6,000 people in 145 training sessions.
Weiss, a Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha member who attended services at the congregation on Oct. 27, 2018, recounted his first-hand observations of the attack. He recalled hearing “four or five shots” fired and watching “brass shell casings bounce across the floor in front of me.”
The Squirrel Hill native explained how he escaped the building and watched as the first responders arrived. He remembered the bravery of one police officer who, despite being shot in the hand, made sure Weiss and other bystanders were moved a safe distance from the shooting as it transpired.
Like Myers, Weiss recalled the training he received from Orsini, saying it helped him know how to react. “I do credit Brad with that training and with saving my life,” Weiss said.
Vigilance and training are the best tools the Jewish community has right now to protect itself from future attacks, said Orsini.
“That’s really the best we can do, have people report everything, to be trained on how to react,” he said. “We don’t have a crystal ball; the internet is vast. We know there are so many people self-radicalizing that want to attack our community but it’s so important for our entire community to be aware, not just how to respond to an active shooter but to report any signs of suspicious behavior.”
Weiss concluded the segment saying he hasn’t allowed fear to control his life since the shooting.
“This was something not planned by any of us, but we need to move forward,” Weiss said. “Partially, it’s my faith that gives me that strength to move forward.”
Pivoting from the local narrative, John Cohen, senior expert on global threats for Argonne National Laboratory and former acting undersecretary for intelligence and analysis and counterterrorism coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security was joined by Kerry Sleeper, former FBI assistant director and former Squirrel Hill resident Jessica Reaves, editorial director of the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism for the webinar’s second segment. The trio discussed the evolving threat to the American Jewish community.
Virtually all threats are now online and on social media, explained Sleeper, noting that it is a challenge to legally monitor these platforms. Law enforcement is experiencing a loss of funding and staffing, he said, so it is important for the Jewish community to maintain organic security like the Federation’s Community Security office.
Right-wing extremists online present the most deadly threat in the country, said Reaves. She pointed out that in 2019, harassment, vandalism and assaults against the Jewish community all increased, with 2,107 anti-Semitic attacks reported that year.
Cohen urged the Jewish community to “be alert, take advantage of training, understand suspicious activities that may be associated with threats, and make sure there are good lines of communication between the faith community and local authorities.”
The final segment of the program included Michael Masters, director and CEO of the Secure Community Network, and Alejandro Mayorkas, former deputy secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, who discussed the security challenges to the Jewish community post-Oct. 27.
The Jewish community has moved beyond the denial phase of “it can’t happen here,” said Masters, adding that it’s important to implement standardized best practices nationally.
While Pittsburgh and other large cities have training and security services, Masters noted, 90% of Jewish communities need additional resources.
Mayorkas stressed the importance of training for synagogues and other Jewish institutions and noted that a robust security strategy includes the need for cameras. Low-cost steps, such as locking the doors to buildings and ongoing training, are also paramount for protection, he said.
Asked by Masters what keeps him up at night, Mayorkas pointed to “the space with which hate has room to breathe is something that, in this country, I have not seen before this time. And it is extremely troubling. And it keeps me up.”
Conversely, Mayorkas said he finds hope in “conversations like this following horrific attacks on people tending to their faith What gives me hope is seeing the response of those people under the leadership of their of their rabbi’s strength and with one another.”
Most Pittsburgh Jewish organizations, with the Federation’s assistance, have invested in upgrading security, and some target hardening also has been done, Shawn Brokos, the current director of Community Security, told the Chronicle. The Federation is being proactive in helping Jewish institutions secure funding for increase upgrades where needed, she said.
“When I train and work with people, I try and get them where they are mindful but empowered — to make sure we live our daily lives and not let anxiety rule our decision-making,” Brokos said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.