In a dimly lit conference room on the upper floor of a mid-rise Chicago building, an intricately detailed snapshot of American peril is taken, eerie minute by minute.
Reports from across the country — of gunshots, bomb threats, threatening anti-Semitic posts — flash across more than a dozen screens. Half a dozen analysts with experience in military or private intelligence are watching them, ready to alert any of the thousands of synagogues, community centers or day schools that appear to be at risk. Analysts are often the first to call.
This is home to the Secure Community Network, the closest thing to an official security agency for American Jewish institutions. There are other organizations that specialize in the security of Jewish facilities, but none as broad as this group, created by the Jewish Federations of North America after 9/11. It has grown exponentially over the past five years, from a small office with five employees to a nationwide organization with 75 employees located across the country.
What prompted its rapid expansion was the murder of 11 worshipers from three congregations by a hate-spewing gunman at the Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, 2018, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history.
The gunman’s trial, due to begin Tuesday in federal court in Pittsburgh, is unfolding in a country that will be less shocked by any revelations than it might have been five years ago, given the now prevalence of mass shootings and anti-Semitic incidents. The White House last week announced what it called the first-ever national strategy to counter anti-Semitism, involving multiple agencies and focusing on education and prevention.
But while Jews in America are now less surprised by such incidents, they have become, of sad necessity, much more vigilant.
The mass shooting in Pittsburgh was followed by arguably the most ambitious and comprehensive effort ever undertaken to protect Jewish life in the United States. As well as bringing in over $100 million dollars in federal grants to local Jewish organizations, the Jewish Federations of North America raised $62 million with the final goal to secure « every single Jewish community » on the continent.
There are now 93 Jewish federations with full-time security directors, a more than fourfold increase in the past five years.
Local federations have discussed security issues at length with mayors and police chiefs, and some have paid guards at schools and other venues, said Eric Fingerhut, JFNA president. every institution in every Jewish community must be protected and connected to a best-practice operation. »
Overseeing much of this is the Secure Community Network. The group’s senior national security adviser, the man who engineered much of the approach it shares with local federations, is Bradley Orsini, a burly and gregarious ex-FBI agent. In October 2018, he served as director of security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
“The worst day of my professional career,” Orsini said in an interview at the group’s headquarters. He was charged with preparing the community for calamity, and it happened. But there was another way of looking at it, which is the foundation of the work he does now: if they hadn’t been taught the basic tactics of active shooter response, the horror of Tree of Life would have been even worse.
“Bad things will happen,” Orsini said. « But we can give ourselves an edge. »
In a report released in March, the Anti-Defamation League counted 3,700 cases of anti-Semitic harassment, vandalism or assault across the country last year alone, the most in 43 years of tracking. The FBI has he also found an increase in hate crimes; of religiously motivated hate crimes, nearly two-thirds were targeted against Jews.
The most horrifying of these have made national news, such as the hostage situation last year at a synagogue in Texas. In January 2022, a British citizen, apparently radicalized by Islamic extremists, took a rabbi hostage and many others. The hostages escaped unharmed, largely, the rabbi said later, thanks to the training they had received from the Secure Community Network.
“It’s a shame we are growing up, because the need is unfortunate,” Orsini said. “Everyone knows it’s not a question of whether. It’s a matter of when and where. »
When Mr. Orsini went to work at the Pittsburgh federation in 2017, Jews in the city and elsewhere were noticing a disturbing turn in the national rhetoric, overt hostility toward immigrants and whistle-blowing warnings about « globalist elites. » But few saw imminent danger.
« When Brad started addressing our organizations, he said, ‘Do you get threatening calls?' » said Jeff Finkelstein, president of the Pittsburgh federation. “And they said, ‘Yes.’ ‘So what do you do?’ ‘We don’t do anything.’”
Mr. Orsini, who is not Jewish but sympathetic to the threat of violent bigotry from his years on the civil rights team in the Pittsburgh FBI office, has devised a systematic approach to protecting Jewish institutions from attack, which he called « the Pittsburgh model ».
He began by poring over all Jewish facilities in the region and recommending security improvements, such as planning escape routes or installing bulletproof glass. He has decided to strengthen ties with local law enforcement and encourage people to report any signs of hate activity.
And he’s held more than 100 training sessions, including two at Tree of Life, where in 2017 a skeptical congregation member named Steven Weiss learned the principles of « run, hide, fight. »
« We were just going through the motions, » recalled Mr. Weiss, then a teacher. What was the point, he thought at the time. « Nothing will ever happen here. »
A year later, on a drizzly Saturday morning at the synagogue, when he heard gunfire in the corridor outside the chapel, Mr. Weiss hurried to a crouch behind a pew. Then he remembered Signor Orsini’s words: “Don’t hide in plain sight. You have to leave. He saw another door and, with the shots getting closer, fled the room.
Active shooter training is no guarantee against the kind of terror that unfolded that day. But Mr. Weiss attributes it to his survival.
The November after the attack, Lloyd Myers, a healthcare entrepreneur and philanthropist who for a time adored Tree of Life, gathered a few dozen people for a brainstorming session.
“I started asking, ‘How could this happen?’” she said. “I would ask my family, I would ask the rabbis, I would ask the people of the Federation. And everyone said: ‘The reality is that no one has our backs’”.
Mr. Myers’ health technology company had specialized in collecting open-source data and looking for patterns or signs of problems. He wondered if this experience could be useful. Mr. Orsini told him about the Secure Community Network.
Mr. Myers’ epidemiological approach — of « treating hate like a virus, » as he described it — came to fruition in the screen-filled conference room at the network’s headquarters.
Much of the analysts’ days are spent probing the Internet’s sewers, sifting through posts that denounce prominent Jews or glorify violence, a noxious task one analyst called « proactive threat hunting. »
There are around 1,300 individuals in these channels that analysts are watching closely, sharing hundreds of disturbing discoveries with law enforcement agencies who in some cases have brought under arrest. But analysts said anti-Semitic extremism is more decentralized than it was a few years ago, when neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville in 2017 drew mainstream attention to more organized far-right groups.
White supremacy now manifests itself in racist leaflets dropped in backyards, in small rallies that quickly form and dissolve, and in torrents of vile gossip flowing in online forums. In some ways, one analyst said, it makes things even more dangerous, such as the dispersal of small, quasi-independent terrorist cells.
The network is planning to operate a temporary outpost in Pittsburgh during the shooter’s trial, which will largely revolve around the question of whether he should be executed.
Network director Michael Masters, a Harvard law graduate who served in the Marines, said many Jewish communities he spoke to initially saw the attack in Pittsburgh as a tragic anomaly, rather than a sign of a new normal. But the shooting exactly six months later at a synagogue in Poway, California, in which the attacker cited the Pittsburgh attacker as an inspiration, exposed that idea.
« That was when Brad and I saw a change, » said Mr. Masters. “Even if you still have that question — ‘Well, I don’t know if it’s going to happen here’ — you might say, ‘Pittsburgh, Poway. We will not choose the time and place.’”
The need for a newfound vigilance has been widely recognized, but there are still those who seem to resist. Weiss learned of this when he left Pittsburgh and joined a new congregation in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where he immediately pointed out the synagogue’s security shortcomings.
The rabbi there, Sam Yolen, said many members readily understood Mr. Weiss’ warnings, particularly young people, who had seen hate metastasize online, and older adults, who had lived in a time when the anti-Semitism was a fact of daily life.
But some, he said — those who had come of age believing they could live as Jews in America largely unexposed to threats or dangers related to their identity — needed more convincing. « People who may have grown up with the American promise of a white picket fence, » said Rabbi Yolen, must learn that « That was the exception. Not the hate we’re experiencing now.
The hostage situation in Texas last year was one of the most recent reminders of this new normal. After an 11-hour standoff in the synagogue, the rabbi, who had recently undergone training with the Secure Community Network, threw a chair at the attacker, giving the hostages a chance to escape. That chair now sits on a low platform in the Chicago headquarters.
Next to it is a smaller chair, the vinyl faded and pockmarked with holes. It comes from the tree of life.