By STEVE ARNOLD
When the first gunshots shattered the Sabbath peace of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, many congregants thought it was a coat rack falling over again in the lobby.
Seconds later, the worshippers realized they were under attack by a crazed gunman. That’s when months of drills and exercises paid off as people fled the building.
When the shooting stopped, 11 people had been killed and six wounded. But the death toll would have been higher if not for those drills and exercises, according to security expert Brad Orsini.
At the time of the October, 2018 attack, Orsini was security director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Now, he is senior national security advisor for the Secure Community Network, an initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Orsini told an online seminar sponsored by Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre on June 23 that Jewish institutions have no option today but to tighten security measures.
“We have to prepare for future attacks,” he said. “The only thing we have any control over is how much we prepare.”
He added: “For our community, what is important to understand is not that we lost 11 souls gunned down by a neo-Nazi white supremacist who self-radicalized over the Internet … We’re going to talk about why people lived, why they survived through this horrific attack.”
The preparations that paid such dividends for the Tree of Life congregants included active shooter drills and allowing local police and other first responders to use the Jewish centre for their own training.
“We didn’t want a real emergency to be the first time they were in one of our facilities,” Orsini said. “All of that training we did in advance saved countless lives on that day.”
Other simple steps included ensuring emergency exits weren’t blocked, having all new police recruits spend training time at the city’s Holocaust Centre, and having a clear communication strategy for the horde of media that descended on the city in the wake of the attack.
“The media comes hard and is relentless,” Orsini said. Appointing clearly designated spokespeople for the community helped to handle the deluge of questions.
What happened in the aftermath of the attack, Orsini added, shows the critical need for unending vigilance.
Families trying to sit shiva received threats, and “hate-fueled” people drove by the homes of victims screaming antisemitic slurs.
“Our attitude in the past was yes, there is antisemitism but we learn to live with it. Things have changed dramatically over the last couple of years and we cannot ignore any sign of hate,” Orsini said. “We can’t afford that in our community now.”