Anti-Semitic acts in the United States are on the rise, with the Anti-Defamation League reporting an 86 percent increase in the first quarter of 2017. During those three months, there were 380 harassment incidents reported, including 161 bomb threats to Jewish communal institutions and 155 vandalism incidents, including three cemetery desecrations.
In advance of the High Holiday season, Jewish Pittsburgh is taking a proactive approach to make sure it is safe, with synagogues, day schools and other institutions upgrading the security of their buildings, while training their staff and volunteers on how to handle a potential crisis.
“Every situation is different, and you have to react to whatever is in front of you,” explained Bradley Orsini, the director of Jewish Community Security, who was hired by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh late last year to help amp up security communitywide.
While “fortunately, there is not much of a threat” against the Jewish community of Western Pennsylvania at the current time, Orsini said, it is nonetheless important to maintain a heightened sense of awareness considering the rise of global and national anti-Semitic behavior, particularly at events that draw large crowds, such as High Holiday services.
Orsini, a retired FBI agent, has delivered about 40 security training sessions at various locations since he began his tenure at the Federation. He has helped train synagogue personnel as well as ushers and greeters and has done building assessments to evaluate “gaps and vulnerabilities,” making suggestions on ways to enhance security.
Temple David in Monroeville is one of many area congregations that has taken advantage of Orsini’s expertise and, as a result, feels more secure this year than ever before, according to Kay Liss, president of the congregation.
“Brad [Orsini] is a Godsend,” she said. “He is one of the better things that the Federation has done to help us.”
Orsini came to Temple David last spring to train its board of directors in active shooter response and suggested ways to enhance the security of the building. The board is currently in the process of arranging training for Temple David, its preschool and its religious school staffs, according to Liss.
“All of our doors now are covered by security cameras, even those that are rarely used,” Liss said. “All of our windows are secure. And we will have a meeting with our ushers and greeters; they need to be aware of the updated security procedures.”
As in past years, Temple David will have a Monroeville police officer present during the High Holiday services, and the congregation intends to be “more diligent” about who it allows into its building on those days.
Like several other congregations across the region, Beth El of the South Hills has formed a security committee to review procedures and ensure its congregants are safe in the building during the High Holidays and always, according to Steve Hecht, Beth El’s executive director.
“At Beth El, we believe that security is something we take seriously throughout the year,” Hecht said. “We have outside and internal cameras, plus a fob system for entry. During the holidays, we have armed Scott Township police externally and internally. We also have a security guard at the main door requesting tickets for entry.”
Orsini recently attended a meeting at Beth El for teachers “which touched on many potential security issues including ‘active shooter,’” Hecht added. Additionally, Hecht and five Beth El lay leaders, including the congregation’s head usher, attended two Sunday morning sessions given by Orsini, the FBI and UPMC on active shooter and Stop the Bleed training “in the unlikely event of major trauma,” Hecht said.
With the help of a Nonprofit Security Grant, the Jewish Association on Aging also has made “significant upgrades” to the facilities on its main campus, according to Deborah Winn-Horvitz, president and CEO. Those upgrades include adding new security cameras and installing a secure cared access system at all entrance doors. The JAA has also provided active shooter and Stop the Bleed training to members of its staff.
At an Aug. 24 training session at Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, Orsini introduced “ALICE” — an active shooter response protocol — to the standing-room only crowd packed into the auditorium at the boys’ school. ALICE — which stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate — is used across the country in schools and healthcare settings as a model on how to react in response to an aggressive intruder, Orsini explained.
An analysis of active shooters has shown that “schools that have been trained, actually stop bad guys,” he said.
“There is no single response to a critical incident that will fit every one,” Orsini continued. ALICE, however, was developed based on years of analysis.
The most important element in preparedness, Orsini said, is to have a plan in place.
“Our goal at Yeshiva Schools is, if we have a security plan and an evacuation plan, that’s our number one step,” he said. “We need to communicate that plan, and we need to exercise and conduct drills with that plan. Then, if God forbid something happens, we’re able to respond.”
Orsini covered the importance of calling 911 as soon as it is safe to do so — and prior to taking the time to investigate suspicious activity — and directly communicating with other staff, as well as locking and barricading doors.
Rabbi Yirsoel Rosenfeld, dean of Yeshiva Schools, said he intended to have Orsini back to conduct additional sessions.
“The teachers have to hear this until it becomes part of their lifestyle,” Rosenfeld said, adding that the school would also be holding drills to practice what they had learned.
Since January, Orsini has presented a basic Situational Awareness/Active, Shooter/Run, Hide, Fight model to about 1,000 people in the community, in addition to the ALICE trainings that he has delivered to day school, religious school and preschool teachers and which he plans to also deliver to all area congregation security committees.
At a recent community meeting at Community Day School, Orsini discussed “what’s going on in the area and some incidents that have happened in Pittsburgh,” including “anti-Semitic literature that has been disseminated in Squirrel Hill in recent weeks.”
That literature consisted of an anti-Semitic letter and business card stamped with the imprint of “The Church of Creativity,” which is described as a white supremacist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Orsini stressed the imperative of reporting every incidence of anti-Semitism, including the receipt of anti-Semitic literature and hate speech.
“It’s important to say something if you see something,” Orsini said.
In addition to conducting security assessments and training sessions at institutions throughout the community, Orsini is also forming a Jewish Community Emergency Response Team. Participants will attend an 18-hour training course that will take place this fall. The City of Pittsburgh Emergency Management and Homeland Security has partnered with the Federation on this program, Orsini said. More than 20 people from across the community have already signed up to participate. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at