Donors, Activists Respond Quickly Pittsburgh Massacre Steps Up Worst-Case Scenario Planning

The Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) website was crushed with traffic that was five to 10 times the normal rate in the days after the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Just a day earlier, the organization had released results of a new study that indicated anti-Semitic attacks on social media against the Jewish American community, especially journalists, had been on the rise ahead of midterm elections.

“The website was just getting bombarded,” said George Selim, senior vice president of programs at the ADL. The website required some technical beefing up to handle downloads of information and donations.

Within an hour of incident, ADL held a national conference call with its CEO and key national leadership to discuss what they knew and how to proceed. Calls were coordinated across the organization and around the country throughout the course of Saturday and Sunday.

There were other non-technical aspects to plan for, like making sure organization officials have updated talking points on anti- Semitism, extremism and online radicalization, Selim said.

Selim joined the organization just after the events in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, previously serving as director of the counter- extremism office at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). He worked in the White House during the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 and terrorist attacks across Europe. “Governments regularly plan for worst case scenarios. I brought that to the nonprofit application,” Selim said.

A GoFundMe campaign started on Oct. 27 for the Tree of Life synagogue eclipsed $1 million within several days and as of early November was up to $1.71 million from more than 18,000 donors in 16 days.

The fundamentals of preparation are the same, whether an organization has four employees or 400. “The concept of going through strategic planning of bestand worst-case scenarios, that doesn’t cost anything,” Selim said. “Like physical exercise, exercise your organization’s muscles,” he said. ADL is a Jewish organization that doesn’t work from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. There are mechanisms in place and scenario planning to ensure that people know who to contact in the event some on is unreachable. That’s updated on a quarterly basis. “It helps keep staff on their toes,” Selim said.

A third aspect of preparation is having materials at the ready, not being dependent on having to go into the office to access certain files but instead have them in a place where you can have access so you’re not scrambling in the wake of an incident, he said. Contingency planning includes having an established rapport with law enforcement. Emergencies should not be the first time you meet representatives of your local law enforcement office, Selim said.

ADL President/CEO Jonathan Greenblatt met with local officials in Pittsburgh and attended the funerals of victims. ADL held some 50 candlelight vigils around the country and has been running a digital vigil online for those unable to attend. More than 7,000 people signed onto the digital vigil and 3,000 of those also wrote messages to the Jewish community in Pittsburgh. ADL plans to deliver the names and cards to Tree of Life.

The organization also launched 11 Minutes of Action last month, a social media campaign to honor victims of the shooting by dedicating 11 minutes of action in their memory. After the Pittsburgh shooting, ADL saw a huge bump in interest and registration for its summit on anti-Semitism in New York City which was slated for Dec. 3

ADL saw a spike in online donations of almost $750,000 in the aftermath of the shooting and still was receiving donations in mid-November.

Robert Gregory Bowers, 46, pleaded not guilty to the Oct. 27 shooting, which killed 11 and injured six during services at Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, ironically the former neighborhood of Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Bowers apparently had a history of posting on social media, in particular, attacking the refugee resettlement nonprofit HIAS.

“There’s no precedent. We never anticipated this would happen,” said Bill Swersey, senior director, communications & digital media at HIAS. “Any nonprofit worth its salt has a crisis communications plan in a drawer some place but this is off the charts,” he said.

HIAS had never had any sort of significant, direct threat, perhaps just some complaints or rude comments on social media, according to Swersey. “Since I’ve been here, four years, I have no recollection of anything serious,” he said. HIAS moved its headquarters from New York City to Silver Spring, Md., about three years ago, but a local HIAS affiliate remains in New York City.

A vigil convened by the Anti-Defamation League at the University of Pittsburgh drew thousands of people.

Founded in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, HIAS originally was named the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. HIAS expanded its work in the early 2000s to assist non-Jewish refugees of all backgrounds, including those from conflicts in Afghanistan and Bosnia, among others.

“It’s been unbelievable. We’re all sort of reeling from it,” he said during a telephone interview in the days after the shooting. “First, the event is so horrific. Any connection is awful, and this is a pretty direct connection. Immediately, people started telling us, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’ ‘We love you,’ ‘We support you.’ Now we’re hearing from people who we’ve never heard from, celebrities saying they have a connection to HIAS,” Swersey said.

“The response has been overwhelmingly wonderful. It’s really important for staff, affiliates, and clients,” he said. Swersey did not have fundraising details in the days following the shooting but said there’s been an outpouring of support.

“Since December 2015, when the [Syrian] refugee crisis came into everyone’s consciousness, it’s been a very different world,” Swersey said. “We’re a small agency, seen as a leader in the sector, now we’re seen as part of the biggest story,” he said. “We’re not the biggest and best known.” It’s an interesting turn of events for the organization to suddenly be in the spotlight. “We were better known Saturday than we were three or four years ago,” said Swersey.

HIAS reported total revenue of $45 million, including $24 million in government grants, and almost $51 million in expenses for the Fiscal Year 2016, according to its most recently available tax form. It’s one of nine national agencies working with the U.S. government to resettle refugees through the U.S. refugee admissions program. Last year, HIAS resettled about 3,300 refugees and Special Immigrant Visa holders (SIVs). It has been involved with high-profile lawsuits and taken a leadership position among agencies dealing with the refugee crisis, Swersey said.

A GoFundMe campaign started on Oct. 27 for the Tree of Life synagogue eclipsed $1 million within several days and as of early November was up to $1.71 million from more than 18,000 donors in 16 days. The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh also started a Fund for Victims of Terror, to help the victims of the synagogue shooting, including other congregations that use it, Dor Hadash and New Light.

ADL and HIAS were among four initiatives to receive $50,000 emergency grants from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles in response to the Tree of Life attack. The other two grants were to the Victims of Terror Fund and the Community Security Initiative, both at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.