Five years after Tree of Life, security experts reflect on what has changed
October 27, 2023, marked the fifth anniversary of the antisemitic terrorist attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Eleven people died and six were wounded in the deadliest attack on Jews in American history. The shooter was found guilty and sentenced to death in August 2023.
In the five years since this attack, JEWISHcolorado has redoubled its ongoing efforts to expand safety and security resources for the Colorado community by working with the Secure Community Network (SCN). Phil Niedringhaus serves as the JEWISHcolorado Regional Security Advisor, after serving in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for 29 years. Kevin Farrington, also a career FBI veteran, joins JEWISHcolorado’s safety and security team early in November.
Recently, we talked with Niedringhaus and his Secure Community Network colleague, Brad Orsini, who was the Director of Community Security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh in 2018. We started by asking about the personal impact the Tree of Life shooting had on their lives.
Brad, it has been five years since your phone rang on a Saturday morning, and you learned what was happening at the Tree of Life Synagogue.
Five years later, those moments are still fresh and top of mind all the time. In all honesty, the events of that day explain why I am still working for the Jewish community and always will be. It was absolutely life-changing. It was my motivation to continue to work to help build a security conscious culture in all communities across the country.
Phil, what were you doing on October 27 five years ago?
I was still a Special Agent with the FBI. I remember that when I heard the news, I was not surprised. I spent most of my FBI career working in the Undercover Operations Program. In the mid to late 1990s, I spent time doing long-term penetration of white supremist groups so I knew exactly what kind of hate and rhetoric came out of those groups. But I was shocked by that level of violence against people in a house of worship practicing their religion. It’s one reason I do the work I do today to continue a life of service by protecting others.
Brad, you had trained members of Tree of Life to defend themselves just six weeks before the shooting. Did that training play a role on that Saturday morning?
I remember having a discussion with [Tree of Life] Rabbi Myers before we did the training. He asked me, “Do I really need to carry a cell phone on Shabbat?” After the training, he changed his protocol and started to carry the phone. On that Saturday, he was the first to call 911 and his call summoned a robust response.
We train our community at a high level to prepare for the worst day of their life. You cannot stop every attack, every killing, but active shooter training gives attendees the tools they need to commit to action—to run, hide, or fight. It is very hard to hit a moving target. We work with our community to empower them to commit to action and thereby become more resilient.
Phil, like Brad, much of your time in Colorado is spent speaking to organizations about safety and security for their buildings and their people.
We talk about Tree of Life in every training we do. My first goal when I work with organizations is to address issues of physical security, controlling access and using camera systems. Our second goal is training people, whether they are working in a building or worshipping there. SCN and JEWISHcolorado have made safety and security training available not just to the Jewish community but also to the interfaith community and other at-risk groups.
Many of the congregants at Tree of Life knew what to do because Brad had trained them. Had he not, I am sure there would have been more significant loss of life.
Brad, you joined the team at SCN about a year after Tree of Life. But when you retired from the FBI and were initially hired by the Pittsburgh Federation, you were one of only 19 Jewish community security professionals across the country. Now, there are more than 100 security experts effectuating communal security across the U.S. Do you attribute this increase to Tree of Life?
I think Tree of Life played a role because it left the community incredibly shaken and anxious. But many communities saw Tree of Life, as horrifying as it was, as an anomaly. Then we had the Poway [California] synagogue shooting (April 2019). Then there was the Jersey City (New Jersey) shooting at a Kosher grocery store (December 2019). Then there was the Monsey (New York) Hannukah stabbing (December 2019). That’s four attacks in 14 months.
Tree of Life had a huge impact, but after Poway, the community realized this was more than antisemitism. We are being physically assaulted.
Phil, from your perspective in Colorado, what is the legacy of Tree of Life?
I think what came out of Tree of Life is the importance of organizations like Secure Community Network. SCN is the national organization made up of law enforcement and security experts dedicated to the safety and security of the Jewish community. SCN’s mission is to monitor and evaluate threats to the Jewish community in real time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
SCN also brings the best-proven safety and security practices and programs to Jewish communities across the U.S. The best practices in Pittsburgh are the same as what we need to do in Denver. Everywhere the Secure Community Network has expanded, they have brought the same safety and security footprint to those communities.
Tree of Life resulted in significant improvements to the safety and security of the Jewish population across the U.S. That is a living legacy to the people who perished there.
Brad, from your perspective, what is the legacy of Tree of Life?
On the evening of October 27, at the family reunification center, Steve Weiss’s wife came up to me and said, “My husband lived because he did what he was trained to do.” Later that evening, I went over to Steve, and he told me in his own words how the training had saved his life. At the time I didn’t know what I do with that information.
In the days that followed, I attended nine funerals for 11 members. After the funerals, I went back to Steve and asked if we could memorialize his story in a video as a testimonial to use in training. Then we added testimonials from more eyewitness survivors. We use those testimonials in training now. It’s one thing for representatives of law enforcement like me or Phil to say, “You must train.” It’s another thing to hear it from a community member who lived because of training.
We have no control over when and where someone will attack. We cannot pick and choose. But we can choose how we can prepare ourselves. How you prepare can make the difference between living and dying. It is really important for our community to be aware because awareness is empowering, and an empowered community is a resilient community. That is what we are striving for—that every Jew across the country is prepared.