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After Pittsburgh synagogue attack, Jewish groups, security officials prepare to confront future violence

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life observes a memorial outside the synagogue in October. (Matt Rourke/AP)

When a gunman opened fire inside Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue last fall, Stephen Weiss heard gunshots and saw shell casings hit the floor. He was about to get down when he remembered the active shooter training that taught him to flee.

“I didn’t have time to stand there and question myself . . . I just had to do something,” said Weiss, a schoolteacher. The training kicked in, Weiss recalled in an interview, and he fled. “That 10 seconds was probably the difference between me living or not.”

On Tuesday, Weiss shared his story with dozens of law enforcement and security officials and representatives of Jewish groups who gathered in Washington for a planning exercise detailing how they would respond to future attacks on Jewish facilities.

The event comes at a fraught moment, with the specter of recent bloodshed — including the massacre in Pittsburgh and the attacks last month on New Zealand mosques, among many others — looming large. In both incidents, authorities have said the suspected attackers espoused white-supremacist ideology.

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As the exercise unfolded, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing focused on white nationalism. The Trump administration has offered differing takes on the issue: President Trump has denied that white nationalism is a rising global danger, describing it last month as “certainly a terrible thing” but saying he did not view it as a growing threat. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, addressing Congress this month, offered a different assessment, saying that white supremacists and other violent extremists were “a persistent, pervasive threat.”

Internal FBI figures show that the bureau has turned up more domestic extremists than those motivated by terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. These figures, which were shared with The Washington Post last month, showed that more domestic terrorism suspects were arrested in 2018 than those allegedly inspired by international terrorist groups.

Tuesday’s exercise highlighted the work that aims to prevent or limit attacks, including the preparation and training that occur with little public notice. This session was organized by the Department of Homeland Security and Secure Community Network, a nonprofit organization focused on security across Jewish institutions.

Several fatal attacks were invoked, most prominently the gunman’s rampage last October in Pittsburgh that ended with 11 dead.

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Jewish communities and centers still remain targets, Michael Masters, national director and chief executive of the Secure Community Network, said during remarks to participants. He said people used to worry about “not if, but when” an attack could occur. Now, Masters said, the question is: “When again?”

Tuesday’s event was a tabletop exercise running through how the participants would react to a wave of threats followed by a string of attacks at Jewish facilities and events across the United States. It focused not on a single person targeting a specific location — the type of horror that unfolded in Pittsburgh, as well as a church in Charleston, S.C.; a high school in Parkland, Fla.; or a nightclub in Orlando — but what officials call a complex coordinated attack, which can encompass multiple acts of violence in different places, akin to the Paris attacks in 2015.

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Among those involved in the exercise were officials with DHS, the FBI and local police departments, along with representatives of numerous Jewish organizations nationwide. The Washington Post was invited to attend on the condition that no specific details of security vulnerabilities would be revealed.

As the event unfolded, law enforcement officials discussed how they would handle a string of threats online and made to Jewish centers. Then the conversation shifted to how they would respond to violence, first at one facility and then at others. Security officials at Jewish centers walked through their responses to attackers using vehicles and then guns.

The scenarios discussed were theoretical, but Brian Harrell, DHS’s assistant director for infrastructure security, said organizers drew details from recent attacks. Officials who spoke during the event stressed the importance of communicating and being ready. They also discussed the value of learning from each other about their practices.

Brad Orsini, director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and a former FBI agent, discussed the active-shooter training done at Tree of Life and other places, saying: “The only thing we can really do is prepare.”

Weiss, who survived that attack, credited Orsini’s training with saving his life.

“The only reason I’m standing here today is because of the training I had with Brad,” he said.

For Jewish people, the concern about threats “is always there because of the history of persecution,” Weiss said. But violent extremists continue to pose a danger to many, he added, pointing to the New Zealand attack.

“We know it’s a credible threat against any religion anywhere,” Weiss said. “Anyone can be found to be a target of somebody.”