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Billings Synagogue Holds Active Shooter Training

Tom Keightley shows a pipe bomb on slideshow presentation
Kayla Desroches
Yellowstone Public Radio
Billings Police Officer Tom Keightley leads an active shooter training at Congregation Beth Aaron in Billings September 8.

A synagogue in Billings, Montana held an active shooter training this past weekend. It joins a growing number of businesses, places of worship and schools taking similar steps.

Billings police officer Tom Keightley stands in the synagogue library Sunday afternoon and pulls a volunteer for a demonstration.

“What’s your name? Lynn? You’re gonna take this gun away from me, come on now,” Keightley says.

Lynn follows him to the doorway.

“Now push down, and I’m going to lift up as hard as I can,” Keightley says.

She shoves his hands and gun towards the ground, away from about fifteen other members of the congregation there for the training.

This could have been an alien scenario to the people here, far-reaching and unlikely, but it’s not.

“I mean, when did you think about what it would be  like for somebody to explode the glass in the front door, walk through and begin killing people?" Keightley says to the group.

“All the time," says one of the people there.

That’s a common response from the people in the room.

“I think it’s part of being Jewish,” says Temple Board Member Diane Kersten says, adding it's a fear she’s had her whole life.

“Always, yeah, yeah, I think our combined memory causes us to be aware of violence towards us,” Kersten says.

“Yeah, it’s a concern I’ve had ever since I was young,” says Al Page, temple board treasurer.

He says he often considers the possibility of a shooting at the synagogue.

“Every time we have services, every time we have High Holy Days, whatever the case may be, I’m always worried about people being around,” Page says.

Rabbi Erik Uriarte says shootings at synagogues over the past two years bring those fears to the forefront.

“For Jews in America, it may have been something that’s was always in the back of our minds and the shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway just sort of exacerbated that fear,” Uriarte says.

Uriarte says he’s felt welcomed in Billings and, in the past, he has referenced Montana’s support of the Jewish community.

In the 1990s, an anti-Semetic act in Billings inspired Montanans to take a stand and eventually adopt the slogan “Not in Our Town.”

Residents stuck by that. In 2017, when neo-Nazis tried, unsuccessfully, to organize an armed march in Whitefish, two women put together the Love Not Hate block party that drew hundreds of participants despite frigid temperatures.

But domestic terrorism is perhaps most frightening because it can happen anywhere, to anyone, not just to vulnurable populations

Officer Tom Keightley says that’s part of why the active shooter training has become the department’s most requested program since it kicked off three years ago.

“It’s a problem in the United States everywhere. It’s not a big city problem, it’s not a small town problem. It doesn’t matter race, religion, gender, none of these things matter, and everybody's afraid of these things happening in their hometown, in their church or synagogue or place of business or Costco, or wherever. Everybody’s taking it seriously, as they should,” Keightley says.

He says the training typically goes an hour long and focuses on the run, hide and fight protocol. It also covers everyday resources you can use to barricade a door to stop entry or a bullet.

Keightley says most of the large, established churches in Billings have asked for trainings for their congregation or staff and many businesses have too.

“Surgery centers and optometry places and retail stores and there’s just a wide variety of types of businesses that have asked us to come in,” Keightley says.

The synagogue says they may consider a follow-up training but that’s to be decided.