On Oct. 27, 2018, Jessica Neiss was on a train in London, England, when a friend messaged her that there was an active shooter at the Tree of Life synagogue building.
“I went into panic mode,” recalled Neiss, a physical therapist with three young children, who grew up attending services at Tree of Life and who moved to London from Pittsburgh last summer. “It felt like 9/11. I messaged all my friends and my parents, and I got off at the first train stop to get my bearings. I was in absolute shock.”
Wanting to help in whatever way she could from across the pond, Neiss volunteered to speak at a London vigil organized by the JW3, a Jewish community center there.
When she arrived at the vigil, she saw that others on the lineup included such luminaries as Home Secretary Sajid Javid; London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan; the American ambassador to London, Woody Johnson; and Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev.
Of those on the roster, though, “it was Jessica whose words touched the packed audience,” reported Britain’s Jewish News.
“I am a Pittsburgher,” Neiss told the crowd, according to the Jewish News. “Squirrel Hill is where neighbors treat each other with respect and people of all races and creeds and backgrounds can live together peacefully.”
Neiss told the audience that British people had asked her if there were security guards at her synagogue. “My response has been, what for?” Neiss said. “I guess that’s going to have to change.”
Neiss’s speech was broadcast live and received a lot of attention in the British press. It also caught the attention of Britain’s Community Security Trust, a Jewish organization that works for the physical protection and defense of British Jews, promotes good relations between British Jews and the rest of British society, and helps the victims of anti-Semitic attacks or bias. The nonprofit provides security advice and training for Jewish organizations, congregations and schools at no charge.
CST invited Neiss to speak at its annual dinner on Feb. 27, which attracted 1,000 guests.
“I opened the dinner,” Neiss said, speaking by phone from her home in London. “They brought me down to headquarters, and took me on a tour around them. The attitude Jews have here, and the attitude Jews have in America [about security] is very different.”
When an anti-Semitic problem arises in the United Kingdom, “Jews here are about protecting themselves,” said Neiss. “In America, Jews turn to the police to protect them.”
During her speech at the CST dinner, Neiss explained that, before Oct. 27, the peaceful and cooperative character of Squirrel Hill had not demanded the type of security precautions undertaken by British Jews.
“Back home, we have over 13 shuls within 5 miles of each other,” Neiss told the audience. “They didn’t have security guards, because we didn’t need them. People loved to come and go. To pray with their neighbors and celebrate life’s simchas together. There were no ‘lists’ of congregants. We moved between the shuls, regardless of affiliation. That is the innocence that was destroyed at Tree of Life synagogue.”
“Jessica’s address at the main U.K. Jewish community commemoration for the Pittsburgh victims was deeply moving and powerful,” said David Delew, chief executive of the CST. “It was a privilege for CST to have her open our annual dinner. Her speech explained the reality of terrorism, anti-Semitism and Jewish unity to our 1,000 guests. It was greatly appreciated by all present, including the chief officer of London’s Police and the U.K. Government Home Secretary.”
Since she has been living in London, Neiss has observed “security outside all Jewish buildings,” both trained security officers and trained volunteers. There are four security guards posted outside her children’s Jewish day school every day.
“It is not an open-door policy here at all,” according to Neiss. “There is a different mindset here to prevent things like what happened at Tree of Life.”
While anti-Semitism frequently makes the headlines in Great Britain — including recurrent incidents involving the liberal Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn — Neiss has not witnessed any problems firsthand.
She has, however, registered to become trained by CST as a security volunteer to help keep her new community safe.
“I don’t believe in violence,” she said. “But I do believe in protecting ourselves. I see that it works here. Thank God they haven’t had a problem here [inside a Jewish building] in a really long time.”
CST, and its emphasis on strong preventative measures, could be a model for Pittsburgh, Neiss believes.
“It’s great to learn how to ‘stop the bleed,’ but it is better to learn how to prevent it from happening,” she said. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com