A Synagogue Shouldn’t Be a Fortress

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

A law-enforcement vehicle sits near the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue.
Brandon Bell / Getty

About the author: Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary for homeland security under President Barack Obama, is the faculty chair of the homeland-security program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of The Devil Never Sleeps: Learning to Live in an Age of Disasters.

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.

The members of the committee were of course aware of the threat, but they had no background in how to counter it. I explained that, generally, the overall goal is to minimize risks while maximizing defenses. But minimizing risks is not easy for one temple to do alone, so the community would have to focus on building defenses.

I provided a checklist: exterior protections, such as fencing or walling off areas exposed to busy streets; contracting security guards during the High Holidays; video cameras; active-shooter training. Again, no emotion. The committee members nodded along. “And you should consider some entry-access security, so people have to identify themselves with badges before they can come in,” I continued. That, it turns out, was too much. The historical significance of asking Jews to carry badges had been lost on me; so was the idea that access is both a vulnerability and essential to the institution.

At airports, stadiums, even schools, safety and security procedures are put in place to protect the essence of the institution itself: travel, recreation, education. We may not like the fortress aesthetic, but we’ve come to accept it.

But what if the essence of a place is that it is defenseless? What if its ability to welcome others, to be hospitable to strangers, is its identity? What if vulnerability is its unstated mission? That is the challenge I hadn’t considered. I tread carefully here speaking of a religion that I know only through marriage. I have strong feelings about Israel, not recently known for its peaceful stance toward its Arab residents. But in the U.S., for a Jewish congregation to become a fortress would seem too militaristic, too aggressive. To make a soft target harder would more likely change the target than deter the attacker.

In security, we view vulnerabilities as inherently bad. We solve the problem with layered defenses: more locks, more surveillance. Deprive strangers of access to your temple, I urged the committee members, and have congregants carry ID. They would have none of it. Access was a vulnerability embedded in the institution, and no security expert could change that—we do logistics, not souls.

The standoff in Colleyville ended with the attacker dead and the hostages unharmed. But all around the country, synagogues are no doubt convening their security committees, wondering what more they can do to defend their members without losing their essential vulnerability. A synagogue is not like an airport or a stadium. When it becomes a fortress, something immeasurable is lost.