Hired by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh in January 2017 as its first director of community security, Brad Orsini — a former FBI agent — held security training at the Tree of Life building on Sept. 5, 2018, and discussed what he called “the worst-case scenario.”
Tragically, he said, “that came true.”
“I came from the crisis management world with the FBI — this was what I did for a living,” Orsini said. “I never thought I would have to use that particular set of knowledge, skill and ability with our community.”
Seven weeks later, on Saturday morning, Oct. 27, 2018, Orsini was informed of an active shooter situation at the Tree of Life building.
“My phone rang, and I got an alert through the city,” he said. “Then my phone started ringing off the hook.”
Orsini immediately got in his car and headed toward the synagogue.
“While I’m driving, I’m talking to [Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh President and CEO] Jeff Finkelstein,” Orsini recalled. “I’m talking to people in other buildings that are locked down looking for information. I am calling Cmdr. [Daniel] Herman from Zone 4. I’m calling the FBI who are on their way. It was a series of calls to ascertain what is going on and the depth of how bad this is. I was just beginning to understand that we were going into a nightmare.”
Orsini arrived at the building shortly after the shooter surrendered. He urged several community leaders to go to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and set up a command post. He then met with several detectives and headed to the JCC himself.
By early afternoon, the JCC was designated as a family reunification and witness center, Orsini said, and organizations like the Salvation Army and John “Jack” Rozel, director of Resolve Crisis Service Centers of UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital, were there to help.
The JCC was the right place to gather, Orisini said, because it was large, had conference rooms and classrooms, and a social hall — everything needed to build an effective command post for the community and first responders.
Orsini said it was difficult for him to see the pain in people’s faces and know that there was little he could do to help the investigation.
“It took every fiber of my being, after being in the FBI for 28½ years, to not just walk in and start working with law enforcement,” he said. “I knew my job was working with the community and to give necessary information to law enforcement.”
The security professional understood that he was responsible for getting information to the presidents of the three congregations attacked — Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha — and to get potential witnesses to the JCC, he said.
There was a sense of frustration that grew as families desperately tried to gather information about loved ones who may have been in the building, Orsini said. He worked with law enforcement and the medical examiner to start the process of death notifications.
“We were working with them to speed up that process, so people didn’t have to wait until Sunday to find out what they probably already knew deep in their heart,” he said. “That is the most horrific thing — to be walking around with that kind of information and not being able to share it.”
At the same time, Orsini worked to ensure the community would be ready Monday morning when schools and early learning centers would open, and morning minyans would convene.
“We had to reduce the anxiety for the community,” he said.
Once the FBI confirmed that the shooter was acting alone, Orsini coordinated a meeting with the FBI, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police and Federation. The decision was made to provide armed security guards for all the Jewish organizations in and around the city. Federation announced that it would pay for that service.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Orsini said he first thought ahead in one-hour blocks, then 12-hour increments.
The first eight hours, he said, were “incredibly chaotic.” By the time the FBI issued a briefing Sunday morning, Orsini said there was no doubt that “law enforcement had an incredible handle on it.” That realization allowed community leaders to begin thinking about communal healing, he said.
It also gave Orsini space to begin coordinating the community’s security needs for the vigil held 36 hours later at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland. That effort included not only the Pittsburgh police but also the police departments of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.
The security needs of the community continued to grow in the days that followed. First, security needed to be coordinated for the funerals of the 11 people killed in the massacre.
“We had to work with the families to understand their wishes, whether the funeral would be open or closed, whether it needed to be inside or outside — all the things we don’t typically have to think about for a funeral,” Orsini said. “We also had to think about the influx of well-meaning people coming to pay their respects. We had to contend with four, five or 10 times the number of people that would be at a funeral.”
Orsini worked continually with law enforcement to ensure the Jewish community was safe during the shivas. His nights ended at 10 or 11 o’clock with a call to the Zone 4 police station making sure the Pittsburgh Police were aware of all of the activities occurring in the Jewish community — something that continued for weeks after the shooting.
Orsini’s work was often done in solitude, without others to lean on for support, he said. He eventually found some respite by talking with his now-wife Deana, a therapist, but Orsini said the emotional toll of the attack was challenging for him, especially because of his role with the community.
“It’s still difficult for me because my role in the community was to keep people safe and that day we lost 11 people,” he said. “That’s what I think about.”
Orsini said he tries to contextualize the events and finds solace in the kind words of survivors. He also recognizes the importance of the training on Sept. 5 at the Tree of Life.
“Steve Weiss’ wife came up to me and said, ‘Steve got out. He followed the training.’ I half-heard it and then Steve came up to me and said, ‘I did it, Brad. I’m so glad you were here.’”
Weiss recounted the training and the incidents inside the synagogue later at a witness testimonial. Orsini said Steve’s words are used in security trainings he offers regularly.
“It’s one thing to hear ‘train, train, train,’ from law enforcement,” Orsini said. “It’s another to hear it from folks that were inside the building.”
Equally as important was the conversation Orsini had with Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers. Myers didn’t carry a cellphone on Shabbat, but began doing so at Orsini’s urging after the security training.
Myers was the first person to call 911 during the massacre.
Orsini was hired as senior national security adviser for the Secure Community Network with the Jewish Federations of North America about a year after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. The SCN works nationwide to keep Jews and Jewish institutions safe and secure.
Orsini recalled that just a few months before the attack, he was contemplating leaving his job in Pittsburgh at the end of 2018.
“I remember thinking, ‘OK, this community has been wonderful, I like working with this community but in December, I’m going to tell Jeff [Finkelstein] I’m going to leave because I’m moving to Arizona.’ That was my plan.”
He can’t imagine that scenario now.
“There’s no way I could have left,” he said. “I stayed with the community another year, and then realized I can’t leave the Jewish community. I have to do this for my own peace of mind and to help other communities. That’s why I’m still working. That’s why I’m still doing this.”
Orsini said he tries not to dwell on the tragedy of the day; instead, he focuses on the relationships, the sense of community and the small acts of kindness.
“When I got hired, Andrew Stewart was the head of the lay leader committee,” Orsini said. “He called me on Oct. 27, and said, ‘Brad, what can I do? I need to do something.’ I said, ‘Andrew my phone is dying, I can’t talk. I have to get my phone tethered to a wall.’ He said, ‘I’ll be right over.’ He brought me a long cord and charging block. The kindness of people like that I’ll never forget.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Union Progress in a collaboration supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.