An update on community security and anti-Semitism in Pittsburgh was provided last week by Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Brad Orsini and Josh Sayles. During a half-hour webinar, the duo described current efforts to prevent and thwart hateful activities.
“Really, my job is to facilitate security needs to the entire Jewish community, our organizations, and quite frankly, the entire community,” said Orsini, Federation’s director of security.
For nearly the past three years — Orsini was hired by Federation in December 2016 after 25 years with the FBI — the director has promoted a three-pronged approach to communal security: assess organizations, perform trainings and encourage residents to report suspicious or hateful activities to law enforcement.
Taking a multilayered approach is critical because “we have seen an increase of anti-Semitic acts throughout the area,” noted Orsini. Whether it is the distribution of flyers, social media posts or graffiti, the number of anti-Semitic acts has risen locally both because more individuals are promoting hate, but also because the community is “getting better” at recording those signs of hate, he said.
The fact that the community is improving in its identification and relaying of information is encouraging, as such efforts will mitigate threats, he said. But education must be ongoing. Whether it is participating in active shooter drills, trainings in Run Hide Fight or other basic safety tactics, the goal is for the community to achieve preparedness and empowerment.
“We can’t stop every horrific act, but we know we can train our community to minimize loss of life. It’s hard for a lot of organizations to understand that, and accept that, because it is a tough topic,” said Orsini. “I think once they do the training, as hard as it is for some folks to do it, they feel empowered at the end. And they’re better off going through that training.”
At each training he’s done, Orsini has been asked if organizations should have armed guards.
“Our security program that we have established throughout the community is kind of a holistic view and armed guards is one of them,” he said. “I want everybody to understand it’s not the end-all be-all by any stretch of the imagination, and because we have an armed guard does not mean bad things are (not) going to happen. It’s just one avenue.”
People have so frequently asked about bringing their own guns to services or Jewish communal events that Orsini has developed a reference sheet dedicated to the topic. The material is available at Federation’s website.
“Carrying a gun is an awesome responsibility,” he said. “It should not be taken lightly. If you own a firearm, you should be qualified and know how to use it.”
Though Pennsylvania allows for concealed-carry permits, “each organization has to make that decision on their own whether or not they let armed congregants in,” said Orsini. “I would try to discourage most organizations from doing that. I think there’s too many perils and pitfalls that are in play that we may not get the outcome we want if something bad happens.”
In the nearly 10 months since the Tree of Life attack, Federation has promoted efforts toward enhanced communal security, explained its staffers.
“After the attacks of October 27, we worked with our organizations to target-harden our facilities. We wanted every one of our organizations in the Pittsburgh area to be on equal footing,” said Orsini. “We’ve provided funds necessary to 44 organizations across greater Pittsburgh in excess of a half a million dollars to target-harden our buildings.”
“I’ll also add to that we have a big lift in Harrisburg right now,” said Sayles, Federation’s Community Relations Council director. “We’re also working on bills more broadly, to grant funding for diverse community organizations throughout the state.”
The goal, continued Sayles, is that “black churches or mosques, Sikh gurdwaras, Hindu temples,” are included in the legislation and that “not only is our community protected, but that all of the diverse communities are protected as well.”
The Aug. 7 webinar was the first of three virtual events made possible by the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Council, a self-described “broad cross-section of the Jewish community spanning the religious, political and socioeconomic spectrum.” According to Federation’s website, the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Council is assembled by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council and “does not represent the opinions of any singular organization or individual. All policy statements passed by the GPJC reflect the consensus of the organized Jewish community in Southwestern Pennsylvania.”
A subsequent webinar from Rabbi Amy Bardack, Federation’s director of Jewish life and learning, is scheduled for Aug. 21. Bardack will outline plans and guiding principles for the one-year commemoration of Oct. 27. Those interested in attending can register online at jewishpgh.org/gpjc.
Before concluding the Aug. 7 session, Orsini stressed that if listeners gain anything from the recent webinar it is that people should remain alert and communicate hateful or concerning acts to law enforcement.
“We cannot afford in the Jewish community to ignore anything anymore,” he said. “Everything needs to be reported.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.