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After the Tree of Life Attack, Synagogues Seek Balance Between Safety and Openness

With anti-Semitic hate crimes on the rise, security fears are a growing part of synagogue design.
A group of monks pay their respects at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
A group of monks pay their respects at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

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.