You have just settled into morning prayers at your familiar synagogue, which has been a place a comfort for you and your family for generations. As you rise for the Shema, the unthinkable happens as gunshots echo through your sacred sanctuary, and there are casualties.
It may never happen, but if it did, do you know what to do in the three to five minutes you have to escape?
“That is where training is so important, why we all have to know what to do in those few minutes,” said Brad Orsini, director of Jewish community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh at a crisis management workshop for community leaders held at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany on Sept. 18. Orsini said three to five minutes is the time it takes for responders to arrive.
Orsini, who spent 28 years as an FBI Special Agent, more than two decades of them in Newark, gave a detailed account of what transpired in his community on Oct. 27, 2018, when a shooter murdered 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue. In two sessions, one held in the morning and one in the evening, he told attendees, including synagogue officials, rabbis, and lay leaders, how the Pittsburgh federation prepared in advance for a disaster, their response to the trauma, and how they managed the immediate aftermath.
“Unfortunately, what happened at Tree of Life came after we had started training,” said Orsini, who in 2017 completed 54 security-related training sessions for 2,200 individuals in Pittsburgh. “On Sept. 5, 2017, we conducted an active shooter drill with Rabbi Jeffrey Myers and the board of the three congregations at Tree of Life. We talked about worst-case scenarios. Unfortunately, our worst nightmare came true.”
His message to community leaders: “Develop a plan, communicate the plan, and practice the plan. These are important tools, commit to them.”
Orsini told NJJN that despite the best of training, attacks can’t always be prevented, as with Tree of Life. “We obviously have no idea when an attack such as that will occur, but we have to be thinking how to minimize casualties, have people find a safe place to shelter. We had two victims open doors at Tree of Life to look out and they were shot.”
Orsini mentioned the principles of the ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) active shooter response training for organizations.
“In any plan, all have to commit to action,” he said. “Teach everyone to move. We are looking to minimize the loss of life in a traumatizing event. Know where to go in your building, think of an escape.”
He gave an example of the quick thinking of a surviving worshipper. “We had a 92-year-old at Tree of Life find shelter, move to a lobby on the other side of the building, and safely get into a car. That was a plan that worked well.”
Orsini also talked about the complicated aftermath of the event, evaluating what was done well and what could be improved. The Pittsburgh Jewish community had to deal with an overload of matters, such as setting up a staging ground, getting information to victims’ families in a timely fashion, managing the media, and handling out-of-towners who wanted to come help.
“There is so much that happens, with the families, with other organizations, with the media, with communication, even a presidential visit,” he said. “The idea was to calm the situation as much as we could.”
The day following the mass murders, a vigil was held at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in the Oakland neighborhood. It was attended by more than 2,000 people, including political leaders and star athletes. Other smaller vigils were held throughout Pittsburgh in the following days and weeks.
“We felt we could have done better in several post-event areas, such as getting the families information more quickly. Obviously, the Tree of Life became a major crime scene, with both the police and Jewish organizations working,” Orsini said. “We are working for better communication among all our people in getting the information to the places it needs to get to, again in an effort to calm the situation.”
Robert Wilson, chief security officer at Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, knew Orsini when he was with the FBI in Newark and Wilson was Teaneck’s chief of police. He arranged for Orsini to speak at the seminar.
Wilson agrees that training and drills are important to maintaining synagogue security. The idea is to be prepared and hope “the nightmare,” as Orsini called it, never happens.
“Buildings have fire drills all the time,” Wilson told NJJN. “There is no reason why we can’t have security drills as well. A lot of synagogues and schools have people who are doing outstanding work on their respective security committees. I’m pleased with the level of vigilance.”
Orsini said he’ll never forget the crime scene at the Tree of Life sanctuary.
“To walk through that crime scene with the rabbis, and as they do their work [with the bodies] is the most personal thing I’ve ever seen in my career, and we never need to see it again,” he said. “So now we need to work even harder to prevent that.”