PITTSBURGH – The way Michael Masters tells it, the epiphany occurred on the way to dinner.
He was in New York City, walking down 57th Street near Broadway, when he saw a swastika on the wall of a building. Amazing timing, it turned out; at that moment he was contemplating taking a job with a nonprofit called the Secure Community Network, a kind of security agency created by the Jewish Federations of North America to harden synagogues and other places – community centers, summer camps – at a time when antisemitism was on the march and in the wake of the 2018 shooting of 11 Jews at prayer at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue.
“The sight of that swastika so infuriated me – it so struck me – because there I was in midtown Manhattan and I was looking at that swastika,” he told me. “I thought that if that could happen in midtown Manhattan, then we have a problem.”
He took the job, and now, as national director and CEO of the Chicago-based network, he has traveled to Pittsburgh, a few miles from Tree of Life and, in the other direction, a few miles from where Robert Bowers, convicted of the murders, is on trial for his life.
So his story – born in Chicago; educated at the University of Michigan, Cambridge University and Harvard Law School; worked for nonprofits in Washington; a stint on the judge advocate staff of the Marines, some time as chief of staff of the Chicago Police – is really a New York story, and a Pittsburgh story, too.
A Pittsburgh story because, as he related to me the other morning, “I was thinking about what Jewish life looked like in this city, and about what Jewish life was going to look like in this city, and I realized that we as Jews need to be prepared.”
He went on: “As this city knows better than anyplace else, our enemies are well-armed, highly motivated and not just interested in taking Jewish lives but in destroying Jewish life. They want to stop us from showing up to synagogue, they want us to question whether it’s safe to send our children to Jewish day school or to Jewish camp, they want us to wonder whether it is safe to live openly as Jews.”
His group has built a team of security professionals – some former military, some from law enforcement, still others with a national security background – who are dedicated to the mission of assuring the safety and security of the Jewish community. More than three-quarters of the staff are non-Jews, representing an understanding beyond the Jewish community that more than the safety of one group of people is at stake in this battle, that the safety of Jews is a proxy for a broader American challenge: the very principle of religious freedom in freedom’s home country.
The efforts are nationwide. For the past three years, for example, the group has mounted an effort – an offensive that amounts to being on the defensive – in the New York City area, home to about 1.6 million Jews and 2,400 Jewish institutions. It has assisted the UJA in tracking threats to Jews and Jewish institutions, enhanced the physical security of every institution in a nine-county region and provided active-threat training. Elsewhere, there have been initiatives to pay for guards at schools and synagogues. One of the training sessions had occurred at Tree for Life just weeks before the shooting.
Over the course of the Tree of Life trial, which began in early spring, the group has maintained a command post staffed in Pittsburgh with an intelligence analyst and a security director. The group has forged a close relationship with federal law-enforcement personnel here and relied on a national technology effort that actually was developed with philanthropists from Pittsburgh, all of whom once had an affiliation with Tree of Life.
“So much of our working and our strategy as a national organization is tied to, or involves, what happened here or the people who are now here in Pittsburgh,” he said. “The proliferation of hate and antisemitic content online is staggering. But part of the issue with the Internet is that some of the most vocal voices are not the most dangerous. We’re looking at not only the most vitriolic people but the most dangerous ones. Sometimes they’re not the same.”
Pittsburgh didn’t expect to be Ground Zero for this sort of effort.
It has, to be sure, a large, active, and prominent Jewish community, centered in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, but until October 27, 2018, it was happy to be a quiet backwater of Jewish life, its residents sending their children to Community Day School or to the Yeshiva School or, for the more secular, Taylor Allderdice High School. Rabbinic-sanctioned Kosher restaurants sat on Murray Avenue and Forbes Avenue. You could tell the exact minute that Shabbat began and ended by looking in the window of the Murray Avenue Kosher store. You could have a falafel at the Milky Way, which boasts that “our vegetarian pies … are above standard in taste and quality.” And you could go to services Saturday morning at Tree of Life, or at about a dozen other venues.
So much remains the same, and yet so much has changed.
The Milky Way – where a dozen rabbis from around North America had dinner after one of the funerals for the victims of the Tree of Life massacre – still serves a mean spinach and feta pizza (with the caveat that “one would be insane to compare us to our competitors or take us for a ‘normal’ pizzeria”). But the serenity of this neighborhood has been shattered. Masters knows he cannot fully restore that. But he and his staff are on the lookout “for the people who pose a threat,” and working “to empower the community in Pittsburgh and beyond with training and physical security.”
A community says thank you, because he and his network are welcome. Θ
David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.