Until last summer, it was not Rabbi Jeffrey Myers’ practice to carry a cellphone on Shabbat. He began doing so only after being urged by Brad Orsini, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s director of Jewish community security, at an active shooter training at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha prior to the High Holidays.
“We did training for Rabbi Myers and his executive committee, and we actually did the training for the religious school teachers months before,” Orsini said. “We discussed things like having a mechanism to contact police if something bad happens, even on Shabbat. And Rabbi Myers never carried his phone before the training, and he did [the day of the attack at Tree of Life]. And he was [among those who] called 911.”
Shabbat services for Myers’ congregation began at 9:45 that morning in the chapel. At 9:54, after hearing a series of gunshots and seeing members of Dor Hadash — which shares the building with TOL*OLS — running for their lives, Myers called 911 as he quickly began ushering congregants to safety. Officers were dispatched to the scene at 9:55 a.m.
“Rabbi Myers knew to get people into a closed room,” Orsini said. “He did a really good job. He did everything he could to save as many people as he could.”
The lives of four congregants who had been seated near the front of the sanctuary were saved because of Myers’ preparedness, said Orsini. He advised everyone in the Jewish community who has not yet gone through active shooter training to do so.
“They need to know what to do, whether it’s running, whether it’s barricading, whatever they can do to keep themselves alive,” Orsini said.
In the coming days, all events in the Jewish community will be provided police protection, Orsini, a former FBI agent, said. “We are doing everything we can with the community. We are asking the community to let us know every event, every service, Friday night, Saturday, if they are holding religious school.
“We are going to provide an entire list of events and services to law enforcement. We are going to cover as much as we can.”
Jewish events in Pittsburgh’s outlying suburbs will also have police protection, according to Orsini, including Monroeville, South Hills and North Hills.
“We’ve got them all covered, and we’ll hire people for the inside,” he said. “The shiva house in Mt. Lebanon was covered. Mt. Lebanon police have been great. Everybody’s been great.”
The possibility of copycat incidents is “on my mind, absolutely,” Orsini said. “We need the community to be ever so vigilant now and to report everything to law enforcement. Everything they have. Is [a copycat incident] a possibility? It’s what we worry about, and it is our biggest fear right now.”
When asked if he had received any credible threats, Orsini replied: “We’ve received numerous emails and Facebook posts that were very negative in nature.”
He has shared all threats with the FBI, he said.
Some threats have been political in nature, and have come from both the left and the right.
Myers received threats in response to his saying he would “welcome President Trump to his place of prayer,” according to FOX news. Additionally, ACHIEVA — the organization that provided services to murdered brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal — received several phone calls “from an unidentified man who was swearing and angry at them. While ACHIEVA would not elaborate on what exactly the caller said, they did tell reporters it was ‘anti-Jewish’ and ‘pro-Trump,’” FOX reported.
“We need to stay the course,” Orsini cautioned. “Every congregation needs to continue to look at their security protocols, continue to conduct training, continue to message out to their congregants on what they should be doing in case of an incident like this.”
Congregations were ramping up their security protocols in anticipation of Shabbat services, and advising their membership of new procedures.
“This week we met with security consultants to determine how we can improve the security of our building,” stated a Nov. 1 letter to congregants from Dr. Louis Felder, the president of Poale Zedeck, an Orthodox congregation. While the congregation will be putting “a comprehensive plan of action in place” over the next few months, it announced several security protocols that would be implemented immediately, including: “There will be designated members in the main shul, balcony and youth building who will carry phones to be used in case of emergency.”
While Orthodox Jews generally consider it a violation of Shabbat to use or even carry a cellphone in ordinary circumstances, “to save a life, you are allowed to do anything,” according to Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, dean of Yeshiva Schools and the Lubavitch Center of Pittsburgh.
While Rosenfeld does not carry a phone on Shabbat, he does carry a mobile “panic button, which goes straight to the police” in his tallis bag.
“I have the panic button within two inches of my hand at all times,” he said. “I believe everyone [leading a congregation] should. It’s the best option.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.