In Pittsburgh, Anxiety Over Security Lingers


Pittsburgh — Long gone are the days when you could walk right into one of the dozen or so synagogues in Squirrel Hill. These days, most synagogues keep their doors locked and visitors must be buzzed in or pass security guards. That’s part of an effort by Brad Orsini, director of Jewish community security at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

At more than 6 feet tall and with 28 years of experience working for the FBI, Orsini is an imposing figure. But he’s gained the trust and admiration of community members, many of whom have his cell phone number, which he gives out freely, in case they need to report a threat.

Just weeks before the shooting at Tree of Life, Orsini had run an active-shooter training for congregants there. What he taught was credited with saving several lives on Oct. 27. Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life, who began carrying a cell phone after that training despite observing Shabbat, made the first call to 911. Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, whose New Light Congregation met in the building, was credited with saving several lives because he knew where the exits and safer hiding places were.

“We had a very robust security plan in Pittsburgh prior to October 27th,” said Orsini, who said that over 75 percent of the community’s synagogues had been working with him on security prior to the attack last year. “We’re doing the same things now but we have buy-in from our entire community.”

But outside of the synagogues, anxiety about security still runs high. An employee at Murray Avenue Kosher, a local grocery, said customers often look around to see if there are strangers there when they walk into the store.

“The need for security, everybody sees it,” said Baila Cohen, who, with her husband, owns Pinsker’s Judaica down the street. But when I asked Cohen if the increased security at the synagogues and the trainings made her feel safer, she hesitated before saying yes. “It also makes me feel less safe because we need it,” she said.

Today, Orsini said, the community has achieved a baseline of security at its synagogues. The next step is educating the community about reporting anti-Semitic incidents, no matter how small or seemingly random. Living in western Pennsylvania, Orsini said signs of white supremacist groups are showing up more frequently. “We see the Patriot Front, we see Identity Europa, we get the bird seed bags from the Ku Klux Klan” — those are plastic zip-top bags carrying an anti-Semitic message on a piece of paper, weighed down by bird seed. Orsini flings one across the room to demonstrate. “It’s a delivery system,” he said.

With white supremacists feeling emboldened by the attack in Pittsburgh, he said, it’s more important than ever to be alert to their activity. “We see this all the time … but our community looks at it, they may not necessarily know what it is,” he said of his files full of anti-Semitic symbols used by white supremacist groups in the area. “So we want to make sure our community knows exactly what this is.”

More coverage: Pittsburgh: 1 Year Later