Pittsburgh Synagogues Dramatically Increasing Security Measures After Tree Of Life Attack

May 8, 2019

Synagogues in western Pennsylvania are significantly increasing security measures in the wake of the deadly attack at the Tree of Life synagogue that left 11 dead.

“We understood we needed to be aware of [security] issues,” said Eric Schaffer, chair of the security committee at the Rodef Shalom synagogue in Oakland. “Since October 27 we’ve thought about it in very different ways.”

To an average worshiper, services at Rodef Shalom don’t look any different than they did last October, when a gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue just a few miles away. But hidden throughout the synagogue are panic buttons that connect directly to Pittsburgh police. The synagogue used to have 8 or 9 of them: Now there are plans to install more than 50.

“The week after the shooting, we had several meetings with various constituent groups in the congregation,” said Barry Weisband, executive director at Rodef Shalom, the largest synagogue in the region. “We knew we had to listen and hear what they were telling us.”

There are now two security guards on site whenever the synagogue is open. They’ve installed additional security cameras and visitors may be searched.

“It’s very expensive to do what we’re doing and the road that we’re going down right now,” Weisband said. “It’s in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

‘We’re all learning how to be first responders’

Rodef Shalom has also provided safety trainings where congregants learn how to run, hide or fight in case of an attack.

“That has been the biggest change,” said Brad Orsini, director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “[A] more aggressive training schedule, more aggressive awareness in the community to report any signs of anti-Semitism or hate.”

Orsini estimated that his organization has sometimes held eight or nine security trainings a week since the attack.

“We train our community on a weekly basis on active threats, active shooter, stop the bleed,” Orsini said. “We teach our community how to stay alive for 3-5 minutes if something bad happens prior to law enforcement coming... [I]n the Jewish community, we’re all learning how to be first responders. We’re all learning what to do in case of our worst scenario.”

For some Orthodox and Conservative congregations, doing activities that are considered work -- like turning on lights -- are frowned upon or even forbidden on the Sabbath, which begins on Friday at sundown and ends Saturday at sundown. So, Orsini trains worshipers to make sure their phones are turned on ahead of time. He said there hasn't been any pushback or resistance to these protocols. Preservation of life overrides all other Jewish principles.

Members of Tree of Life had already gone through one of these trainings before last fall's deadly attack. Participants were told to keep their phones on during services and to know the synagogue’s street address.

Those procedures saved lives at Tree of Life.

“The rabbi was able to make the call,” said Tree of Life vice president Alan Hausman. “Up until that training, he had never carried his cell phone on the Shabbat ... and members of the congregation used to turn their phones off, so all of those people were able to make rapid calls, and it helped.”

Secure But Open

Tree of Life is still closed off. The sanctuary was untouched, but the building will undergo major renovations over the next several years. Hausman says designing a house of worship that is both secure and inviting is a challenge.

They’re looking at security guards, cameras, a double-door system that would keep people in an outer lobby. And giving congregants a fob to unlock doors.

“Unfortunately, the days of just leaving the doors unlocked and people coming in and out are over,” Hausman said.

That’s true everywhere there have been shootings at places of worship -- from Charleston, South Carolina to Christchurch, New Zealand. Last month, there was another shooting at a synagogue in San Diego, California.

“As you see things like what happened in California, it just opens up all the wounds and starts the fear all over again,” Hausman said. “I believe if we train our personnel well, and we have adequate security in the building, we can still be open.”

Still, Hausman remembers that new feeling of vulnerability in the weeks after the Tree of Life shooting.

“I went to a church service of a wedding and every door was unlocked the whole time,” he recalled. “At a certain point my wife said to me, 'You’ve got to stop looking at the doors.' I told her at that point that I just could not stop... That’s just where my thought process was: making sure no one came through those doors.”

Hausman knows that he and his congregation will never forget what happened at Tree of Life. A few members still haven’t still come back to services.

But there’s also hope. A few months ago, Tree of Life celebrated its first bar mitzvah since the attack.