Spending a week training with law enforcement and security officials in Israel was “eye-opening,” said Aaron Lauth, chief of police for the Mt. Lebanon Police Department.
Not only did he learn that some of the security issues being dealt with in the Jewish state mirror the ones he faces on a local level, but he was also able to bring back to his police department useful techniques and strategies to help protect his community here.
From May 16-25, Lauth, along with Mt. Lebanon Police Department’s deputy chief Jason Haberman, attended a law enforcement mission to Israel organized by Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs.
Also on the trip was Brad Orsini, director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh; Pittsburgh Police Department Commander Ed Trapp; and Pittsburgh Police Department Sgts. Jim Glick and Eric Baker.
This was the first mission of its kind, according to Orsini, and it included community security directors and police officers from Cleveland, Cincinnati and Detroit as well as Pittsburgh.
“We went over to work with [Israeli] officials from many different departments on community resiliency, and to talk about how they protect the homeland, how we do things here in the United States, do some joint training with them and be exposed, and expose them to what we do here,” Orsini said.
“It was a trip of a lifetime,” Orsini continued, noting that it was the first visit to Israel for each of the Pittsburgh participants.
One of the challenges police face, Lauth said, is finding the right balance between security measures and openness, and visiting Israel helped him see how other communities find that balance.
“There has always been that balance, because we want our synagogues, our churches, our schools, to be public buildings, open to the community and free for people to come in and worship and learn,” he said. “They are supposed to be happy places. That is something we have always sort of done behind the scenes. But after Oct. 27, a lot of that has come into question. How much security do we have to have? How much security do we need to have? What is our comfort level with that security? I found it very interesting, the opportunity to go to Israel and learn how things occur there as opposed to how they occur in the United States.”
Lauth, who lives in Mt. Lebanon, has worked in its police department for 21 years, and has served as its chief since 2015.
Haberman, who is Jewish, has been in police work for 22 years. Prior to coming to the Mt. Lebanon Police Department about nine months ago, he served as a lieutenant with the Port Authority Police, where he focused on preparedness and counterterrorism.
Some assumptions he and others had about Israel were dispelled by the trip.
“The threats in Israel are very different, and the threat trends are different,” Haberman explained. “So while we maybe thought that their threat trend was the same as ours, I think we quickly discovered that they hadn’t had some of the school violence issues that we have, and that attacks on religious institutions are rare.”
The Israeli officers also learned from their visitors.
“They gleaned a lot from us,” Haberman said. “More so than what we thought. They really wanted to see how we balanced that community engagement part of it, and that is something that struck me personally as something I didn’t expect. They were picking our brains as much as we were picking theirs.”
The contingents from the four American cities were able to learn from each other, said Lauth. They were all able to pick up tips on how to improve policing in their own communities, “not just related to synagogues, but related to other religious institutions, related to schools, related to public facilities in general.
This was an opportunity to learn new things. We have all been doing this awhile, but to go into that type of situation and to learn from others about how to do things more generally in your community, it was an awesome opportunity.”
Some of the most impactful sessions they attended dealt with anti-Semitism and methods of dealing with police stress, according to Orsini.
“[The Israelis’] perspective was an eye-opener,” he said. “For example, they did a mental health police stress presentation. It was probably the best ‘how to deal with stress on the job’ presentation I have ever heard in three decades. Their twist on PTSD with law enforcement and first responders, how to deal with it, how to recognize it, how to not have burnout in your police department, in your security forces.”
The stress that officers face in Israel on a daily basis is high, noted Haberman, and a bad decision could be disastrous.
“These officers, in a way I couldn’t even imagine, work in an environment where, literally, they were on post eight hours a day. Prior to stress management, they had very little breaks. Now they are stepping away from that,” he learned. “They have very similar challenges, but to a higher degree there. A terrible decision, or a misinformed decision by an officer on the street in the Dan district will be very different from here, with different ramifications. It could really make for a tremendously terrible situation.”
Another impactful part of the trip, the officers said, was a session about the Jewish Diaspora, culminating in a visit to Yad Vashem .
“It was a very personal visit they had set up for us,” said Haberman, whose uncle was a Holocaust survivor. “The focus was of education of officers to understand the plight of the Jewish people and what had gotten Israel to the point of where it was today. It was a tremendous educational opportunity for all of us.”
The Israeli officers and those from the other American communities had a keen interest in learning about Pittsburgh’s response to the Tree of Life massacre. Orsini put together a presentation on the communal response as well as the law enforcement response to the shooting, including securing the community that Saturday night and through the next month. Orsini explained the “hand in hand” coordination between law enforcement and the Federation, and shared best practices and the lessons learned as a community.
The Israel mission “was hands-down the highlight of my career, without a doubt, and I have been very fortunate in my career,” said Haberman. “The real highlight was taking away the fact that even though our host really had a vast amount of experience, they were looking for other answers as well. And they weren’t above asking those questions. They were really looking to exchange ideas, and take those ideas and put them into practice. And I guarantee we will continue those conversations.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at