Analysis & Opinions - The Atlantic

A Synagogue Shouldn't Be a Fortress

| Jan. 17, 2022

Security experts maximize defenses. But places of worship need to remain welcoming.

A few years ago, in response to the deadly 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the synagogue where my children and husband are members asked me to advise its new security committee. Easy enough. It is what I do for companies, public entities, schools, and sports teams. My job is to assess risk and buttress defenses in response to those risks. That's it. I do cold calculations, not emotion. On that occasion, however, dispassion was a liability.

My relationship to the synagogue, as an Arab American raising Jewish children, is less complicated than the debates of our time would suggest. The synagogue is a progressive place, open to the stranger and the non-convert. Enough interfaith families belong that the congregation long ago shed any formal notion of what it means to be a "Jewish family." It changed its calendar, even, and canceled Hebrew school on Easter Sunday to accommodate its diverse members. When my three kids were preparing for their bar and bat mitzvahs and the social events surrounding them, the division of labor was clear: Their father would focus on their souls, and I would focus on logistics.

The very existence of the security committee was a sign of concern about anti-Semitism and hate crimes. That concern was and is rational. Jews have been targeted with deadly violence recently in Pittsburgh; Poway, California; Jersey City, New Jersey; Monsey, New York; and, this weekend, Colleyville, Texas, where a British national took hostages at the Congregation Beth Israel during an 11-hour ordeal. Today, one in four American Jews says that their cultural or religious institutions have been attacked, threatened, or defaced over the past five years. The Jewish community is menaced by both right-wing extremists and Islamic jihadists....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kayyem, Juliette.“A Synagogue Shouldn't Be a Fortress.” The Atlantic, January 17, 2022.

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Juliette Kayyem Headshot