Midmorning on Aug. 20, a “terror attack” took place at a synagogue in West Orange: A bus driver’s throat was cut, hostages were taken, suicide vests exploded, and multiple murders were committed before the five terrorists involved in the incident at Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David were neutralized and the situation was brought under control.
The grisly details were part of a major terrorism simulation and response drill meant to prepare professionals and volunteers for an active shooter and hostage situation. The scenario took six actors and more than 100 volunteers and the cooperation of municipal, county, state, and federal law enforcement authorities, as well as the Department of Homeland Security, the Picatinny Arsenal in Morris County, and the synagogue.
It was the third such training to take place in West Orange; the previous two involved incidents at a school and at a cinema.
“It’s frightening to think about from our perspective,” said AABJ&D’s Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler, who watched the events unfold from a video feed. “God forbid if anything like this were to happen, you think how many people would be around.”
“On the other hand,” he continued, “you take comfort in the fact that here you have local, state, federal authorities who now really know our facility and are able to pull up at any time. That’s very important.”
During the simulation, West Orange police responded to a call regarding what they were told was a pedestrian accident with the bus, and arrived to find six people already “dead” on the ground in front of the bus. Once they determined it was a terrorism incident with hostages involved, the police officers called in the FBI.
Bruce Schlanger, chair of the security committee at AABJ&D, said when the West Orange police reached out to the synagogue requesting that it serve as the drill venue, the response was swift. “We’re always willing and looking forward to working with our police department,” Schlanger said. “Their improved security is our improved security, so it’s a win-win partnership.”
Preparation for the drill has been in the works for months, according to those involved. And the selection of a synagogue was not random; West Orange Chief of Police James Abbott said AABJ&D was selected due to “heightened awareness with issues in the Middle East. Our synagogues are always under constant police surveillance and protection. We have a very high Jewish population, and we do our best to protect them.”
All three simulations helped the department hone its response.
“This is our third trip to the dance floor,” said Abbott. “Each time afterward, we go back and we critique it, and we find out how we can do it better. We want to be prepared.”
The event marked the first time the FBI participated in this kind of drill in West Orange.
The staged scene was frightening and dramatic: As the terrorists ran into the synagogue, some people were able to escape. Others were less fortunate. When demands, made in Arabic, for the release of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay were not met, gunmen followed through on their threats to kill another hostage every two minutes. The gunshots, actually a combination of blanks and paintballs being shot from real guns, could be heard from at least a block away.
Lieutenant John Morella of the West Orange Police Department said the realistic drill “allows us to see where our weaknesses are and where our strengths are. The whole point of this is to allow us to do this in a safe environment so that guys can get exceptional training and exceptional experience.”
But part of that training comes with understanding the grim reality of this type of event. Morella said lives were “saved” during the drill, but plenty of people “died” as well. In a real-life attack, “you’re going to have death,” he said. Terrorists generally want to cause “as much chaos and catastrophe as possible. No matter what, people get hurt. People get killed. You want to practice, and realize you have to be prepared.”