Pittsburgh Security Head Details Tree of Life Events

Police Commissioner Richard Ross addresses the gathering. (Photos by Jesse Bernstein)

After 11 congregants at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha synagogue building in Pittsburgh were shot and killed on Oct. 27 by a white supremacist, Jewish institutions across the country are rethinking their approaches to security, including in Philadelphia.

The link between the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shooting and a Jan. 24 event in Philadelphia at the Jewish Community Services Building — which honored five Philadelphia Police Department officers — was embodied in the presence of Brad Orsini, director of Jewish Community Security at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

Officers and Jewish Federation employees listen as Orsini relates the events of Oct. 27.

Orsini was among the earliest entrants into the sanctuary after the shooting, and delivered a blow-by-blow account of the days and weeks that followed, from the first sign of trouble to the logistics and security of community memorial events.

“It just wasn’t the shooting death of 11 members of our community. It was a massacre. It was not a homicide,” Orsini said. “I want you to know that.”

The event began with introductions from Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia Security Director Frank Riehl, Jewish Federation President and CEO Naomi Adler and Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross. Each spoke to the audience of about 30 (made up of police officers and Jewish Federation employees) about the ever-increasing importance of cooperation between law enforcement and the greater Jewish community.

Riehl, a 26-year veteran of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Ex- plosives who took his current position in 2017, praised the efforts of the Philadelphia Police Department on the day of the Pittsburgh shooting.

“I was immediately contacted by Deputy Commissioner Joe Sullivan and his first question was, ‘What do you need?’” Riehl said. “That just goes such a long way. Anything we asked, pretty much just got handled in an expedited manner.” He then ceded the lectern to Adler.

“There are moments,” she said, before introducing Ross, “when Pittsburgh or other incidents happen, and we all throw up our hands and get really emotional about how it feels. The best is to know that every single day there are others that are thinking about what’s going on so that we can do whatever possible to prohibit Pittsburgh and what happened there to happen to our communities.

“We know we’re a target,” she continued, “we know that our community is a target for various reasons and in various ways. … So I’m really grateful that we’re having this opportunity to say thank you.”

Pittsburgh native Orsini was an FBI agent for 28 years before taking his current position in 2017. The beginning of his tenure was marked by the height of the JCC bomb scares across the country, later revealed to largely be the work of an Israeli teen; still, he said, fear was in the air.

Just six weeks prior to the shooting, he said, he had led active shooter training with community members — trying to “prepare our community to survive for 3-5 minutes,” in Orsini’s words — but just as important were conversations with the administration of the synagogue on the leadership roles they could take in such situations. The rabbi of Tree of Life was persuaded to carry a cell phone in case of emergency, for one.

The morning of Oct. 27 brought what Orsini called “one of the worst crime scenes I’ve ever been in.”

According to prosecutors, Robert Bowers, a Pittsburgh-area white supremacist, entered the sanctuary just before 10 a.m. and killed 11 people before retreating deeper into the facility. Officers from the police precinct no more than 200 yards away entered the sanctuary even as rounds were still going off.

“Words can’t even describe what those guys did entering that synagogue hearing AR-15 fire,” Orsini said. For many of them, it was their first crime scene.

Within minutes, around 200 gun-carrying members of law enforcement had swarmed the area, and it took Orsini a moment to remind himself that as part of the Jewish Federation, and no longer of the FBI, he had special responsibilities on that day. Immediately, he began to facilitate cooperation between the Jewish Federation and law enforcement, designating buildings on the property for witness relocation and family reunification, to start.

The latter task brought some of the first misinformation of the day, when local news outlets misreported the location as being on a nearby college campus. Speaking directly to the police officers in the room, Orsini pleaded with them to think about how often they were briefing their communities during active shooter situations.

“We didn’t do a good job briefing the community on a regular basis,” he admitted.

In the meantime, there were victims to identify and, for many of them, it was impossible.

Once again, Orsini found himself as a translator of sorts, explaining to law enforcement that members of the chevra kadisha — the burial society — needed to be allowed into the active crime scene to help identify the victims and take care of the bodies. It was complicated, he said, but ultimately able to be carried out.

It was a long night, Orsini said. However, “the city, as devastated as they were, were incredibly resilient.”

The next few days carried more complications.

The work of local coroners had to be expedited so that the bodies could be buried in a timely fashion and in accordance with Jewish law; decisions had to be made about who could attend memorial services, and in what numbers; an avalanche of threats came in from those sympathetic to Bowers’ political project, promising to enact similar violence against funerals, memorials and shivas; and President Trump came to town, which caused consternation to some members of the community.

Orsini said people have often looked to him to make political pronouncements in the shooting aftermath, but he declines to do so. He doesn’t think it would be constructive, nor does he think it is a particularly helpful mechanism for understanding what happened.

What he can say is this: “Anti-Semitism, since the day I took this position to now, has increased dramatically. And I see it every day. Every day.”

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