A South Floridian Orthodox Jewish community was used to having a police officer sit in his or her car during Shabbat outside the synagogue, for many decades. But this policeman wasn’t there in order to protect them, but, rather, to press the button of the traffic light, in order to allow pedestrians to cross the busy highway across the street. Years later, a number of police cars would regularly guard it on a regular basis, security cameras were installed and a physical wall would be built in order to better protect the worshipers.
In the annals of American history, there are moments of profound grief that transcend time, forever shaping the psyche of entire communities. The attacks on September 11, 2001, forever transformed how Americans live and travel, leaving an indelible mark on the nation’s soul. This tragedy still echoes in the hearts of millions, serving as a poignant reminder of vulnerability, but also of resilience. Almost two decades later, the Jewish community would face its own searing moment of reckoning in the peaceful neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. The tragedy at the Tree of Life Congregation wasn’t just another heart-wrenching headline; for many, it was the Jewish community’s own 9/11.
On October 27, 2018, an antisemitic terrorist attack occurred at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. During Shabbat services, three congregations present were attacked, resulting in 11 dead and six wounded, including some Holocaust survivors. This became the deadliest attack on US Jews. The assailant, Robert Gregory Bowers, had previously shared antisemitic views online, specifically targeting HIAS, an organization supported by one of the congregations. After the attack, he was apprehended on site and faced numerous charges. On Wednesday, he was found guilty of all federal counts and was sentenced to death. Bowers also faces additional state charges in Pennsylvania.
The terror that unfolded in the corridors of the synagogue shattered not just the sacredness of a Sabbath morning but also signaled a cataclysmic shift in the very fabric of Jewish life in America. Like the way the Twin Towers’ fall prompted a reinvention of national security and reshaped global air travel, the shadows cast by the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting ushered in a new, somber era for Jewish institutions and congregations across the nation.
The quiet streets of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, usually resonant with the hymns of prayers and the laughter of children, bore witness to unimaginable violence that day. It was not just the walls of the Tree of Life Congregation that absorbed the shock but the very soul of Jewish America. Synagogues, traditionally places of refuge and spiritual connection, found themselves confronting the harsh reality of their vulnerability. As airports after 9/11 transformed into fortresses, synagogues, too, found themselves grappling with the balance between openness and vigilance.
How did the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting transform American Jewry?
Up until this deadly incident, American synagogues barely took any security measures. Many Orthodox congregations would have a simple code-lock on their doors and spell out the code in Hebrew print, in order to allow entrance only to Jews, who could read the language. In 2023, many synagogues are like fortresses and with security that isn’t less vigorous than any American airport. In many cases, you will be asked questions in order to identify that you are actually coming to pray, and will then be told to put all of your belongings through an X-ray baggage scanner and walk through a metal detector. This was unheard of in America but very popular in Europe and other smaller Jewish communities for decades.
During its annual gathering in Chicago at the end of 2022, the Jewish Federations of North America reported a significant rise in the adoption of security programs among Jewish communities in response to the growing threat of antisemitism. According to their announcement, there has been a remarkable 42% increase in the number of communities implementing security initiatives.
Jewish Federations board chairwoman Julie Platt noted then that before the tragic Tree of Life synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh back in 2018, only a few communities had professional security initiatives in place. However, since the inception of the LiveSecure initiative, there has been a marked improvement in the safety measures taken by Jewish communities.
Just one year after the launch of Jewish Federations’ $130-million LiveSecure initiative, the largest security campaign in the history of the North American Jewish community, the total number of Jewish communities that had comprehensive security programs stood at 64. Before the launch of the initiative, there were only 45 such programs. New security programs have been launched in San Diego, California; Houston, Texas; Birmingham, Alabama; Rockland County, New York; and Jacksonville, Florida, among other cities. Existing initiatives have grown in strength and scope as well.
One organization that has become more central and active in the American Jewish world is Secure Community Network, “the official safety and security organization of the Jewish community in North America,” according to its own website. National director and CEO of SCN Michael Masters said in a statement this week that in the years since that dreadful day in 2018, “our community has shown extraordinary resilience and determination, both in the spirit of demonstrating our strength in response to the heinous attack and working to increase our security to prepare for and prevent future acts of targeted violence. We are working together like never before to train and be trained, secure our spaces, and find and mitigate threats wherever they may be – with communities like Pittsburgh leading the way.”
But it wasn’t just about physical security measures. The somber realization that synagogues might be targeted introduced a sorrowful ritual to congregational life: active shooter training. The very idea that places of worship, of community, would need to prepare for such horrors is a testament to the depth of fear instilled by that fateful day.
Financial considerations became another facet of this new reality. For many congregations, ensuring the safety of their members meant significant investments in security enhancements, surveillance, and personnel. Yet, for most communities, no price was too high when it came to safeguarding their cherished spaces and loved ones.
BEYOND THE tangible, the emotional and psychological scars remain. An unsettling duality has emerged – a yearning for synagogues to be the welcoming havens of spirituality they’ve always been, while also confronting the necessity for protective barriers. It’s a delicate dance, one that speaks to the broader challenges faced by the Jewish community in the wake of the Pittsburgh tragedy.
Many studies have shown an increase of panic and uncomfortableness of American Jews in the past few years. According to a survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, 59% felt Jews were less safe in the US than a decade before. The 2021 poll found that 63% of respondents have either experienced or heard antisemitic comments, slurs or threats targeting others, an increase from 54% a year earlier. Alarmingly, 9% of Jewish Americans indicated in the survey that they had been physically attacked in the last five years because they are Jewish, up slightly from 2020 but still within the margin of error. And one in four Jewish Americans (25%) reported having been directly targeted by antisemitic comments, slurs or threats.
“In the aftermath of major antisemitic attacks in Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City and Monsey [terrorist attacks against Jews], American Jews are reporting that they feel less safe in the US today than they were just a decade earlier,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL CEO, in 2021.
Online antisemitism has become a worrying trend in America. ADL has reported that over the past year, online hate and harassment rose sharply for adults and teens ages 13-17. Among adults, 52% reported being harassed online in their lifetime, the highest number seen in four years, up from 40% in 2022. Both adults and teens also reported being harassed within the past 12 months, up from 23% in 2022 to 33% in 2023 for adults and from 36% to 51% for teens. Overall, reports of each type of hate and harassment increased by nearly every measure and within almost every demographic group.
This against the backdrop of many mainstream celebrities or popular figures who have been creating vile antisemitic content online, such as YE (Kanye West).
Yet, even in the throes of sorrow, rays of hope shone through. Just as 9/11 witnessed a surge of national solidarity, the days following the Pittsburgh incident saw remarkable displays of interfaith support. Vigils, gatherings, and communal efforts to promote peace and understanding underscored humanity’s innate capacity for compassion and unity.
The security measures are important, but the hope is that they will just be for precaution.