Nicole Javorsky is an editorial fellow at Mother Jones, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab.
With anti-Semitic hate crimes on the rise, security fears are a growing part of synagogue design.
Earlier this year, I attended Friday night services at Romemu, a synagogue in New York City that serves the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As congregation leaders pounded drums, we chanted prayers and children danced in the aisles. The pews absorbed the vibrations of the music, the tiny feet, and our voices, fusing them into the prayer’s pulse. It was like entering a kind of communal reverie—a daydream that I could experience with others. At one point in the service, members of the congregation were invited to stand and introduce themselves. As they did, we recognized that people from all over the world had come together to pray on Shabbat.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Romemu, and the feelings it generated, since the massacre at the Tree of Life Congregation in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill this Saturday. (I’ve been listening to the recordings of Romemu’s Friday evening prayers on loop.) Part of the reason the experience was so powerful was the physical layout of the structure itself: the rounded prayer space has pews framing a red-carpeted semi-circle, where the service leaders played instruments, sang, and delivered sermons. It was, in short, a space designed to made me feel welcome. That’s typical of synagogues, which are built to invite—not discourage—newcomers to enter.
But in the wake of the Pittsburgh attack, which is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, some have emphasized the idea that the way synagogues look and feel will need to change. Michael Eisenberg, the previous president of Tree of Life, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that the building, constructed in the early 1950s, “isn’t designed for today as far as security purposes.” President Donald Trump, meanwhile, suggested adding armed guards. But hardening security brings a significant design challenge: How do you make a place of prayer—one expressly designed to draw in outsiders, not keep them out—still feel like a welcoming space?
“It’s very important for many of these institutions to still be open and allow passerby to come in,” said Esther Sperber, founder of Studio ST Architects. Her firm designed Kesher Synagogue in suburban New Jersey, as well as renovations for a Manhattan Jewish community center, the 14th Street Y. While working on the 14th Street Y, she said, “they had a very similar debate between openness … and the need for security.”
The Tree of Life massacre and the general rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes since the Trump administration have sharpened the urgency of this debate—but it’s hardly a new one. In 2016, the FBI reported 684 incidents of anti-Jewish hate crimes in the United States. “These concerns have existed for a great deal of time, well before this tragedy,” said Mark Levin, a partner at the Maryland-based architecture firm Levin/Brown & Associates, which has completed more than 160 projects for synagogues and churches in the U.S. over the past few decades. “It is indeed a dilemma of openness and welcoming versus being closed-off and secure.”
Levin said that his firm has built synagogues with bulletproof glass, and sometimes bomb-proof materials (such as blast-resistant glass). About a dozen synagogues in recent years have requested “panic buttons” that activates a security alert and summons police response. But some features, such as adding security guards, merely create other problems: People can get backed up on their way in and become just as vulnerable or more so to an attacker.
Access to the building is another issue. Many synagogues have separate entrances for the school, offices, and prayer spaces. Levin said one way to combine the goal of fostering a welcoming community and increasing security is to have only one entrance. But when there are larger gatherings, such as on Shabbat, holidays, or large bar/bat mitzvahs, it can be hard for synagogues to regulate the flow of people quickly—let alone be simultaneously welcoming. “People are on edge and they’re nervous,” Levin said. “Physically, we haven’t figured out how to be welcoming and contain people yet at the same time.”
Many synagogues are all about celebrating newcomers and those who only come occasionally; individuals can pass freely through the doors at any point in the service. This practice communicates: You were running late today? Not a problem; you are welcome here. The threats against Jewish synagogues, as well as black churches and mosques, can lead us to a disturbing conclusion: For these spaces of sanctuary to be truly open poses a security risk.
A close friend of mine, Samantha Cytryn, who is a graduate student at the University at Buffalo in upstate New York, told me that her synagogue back home in Queens, New York, feels like “a place of safety,” but that sense of comfort dissipates somewhat when security—including bomb-sniffing dogs—is ramped up during the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the day of atonement). When asked about whether synagogues should increase security, she said, “I feel like it’s such a hard question to answer because I think it’s sad that security needs to be present in a synagogue.”
Jennifer Levin-Tavares, the executive director of Congregation Kol Tikvah in Parkland, Florida, did her thesis in temple administration on reconciling the issue of creating a Jewish security plan in today’s world with the goal of having a warm and welcoming space. “If you look at the purpose of a synagogue, it’s to have a sense of community. That necessarily means warmth and people feeling at home,” she said. “And in order for people to feel at home, they have to feel safe and secure.”
Since her synagogue is in Parkland, Florida—where a school shooting claimed 17 lives earlier this year—Levin-Tavares said that “there’s a different level of sensitivity now than there was nine months ago.” But she declined to get into the specifics of recent changes to the synagogue, as those features are typically concealed for security. “We constantly have to look at physical structure and see what modifications need to happen to address any concerns that we have. Then we have to prioritize and identify how we are going to fund our priorities.”
She added, “I think every synagogue around the country has made changes over the last 20 years, and for sure since 9/11.”
Even with tightened procedures, Levin-Tavares emphasized that there are ways of making people feel welcome, by greeting them when they enter and ensuring that the space feels warm and sacred.
“It matters once they get inside their experience is—if you have people there helping to make people feel at home,” she said. “If your worship space feels like a prison, that’s not going to be a positive experience.”