Ahead of holidays, Jewish and congressional leaders urge increased security funding

Federal Nonprofit Security Grant Program used to secure Jewish institutions falls short of demand as antisemitism spikes in US, Jewish groups say

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: New York police secure a Jewish community event in New York City, May 19, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Illustrative: New York police secure a Jewish community event in New York City, May 19, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

WASHINGTON — Jewish community leaders, security experts and congressional representatives on Tuesday called for increased funding for nonprofit security at a briefing in Washington, DC, highlighting threats to Jews ahead of the High Holidays.

The speakers focused on funding provided by the US government’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which is used to protect Jewish communities and other organizations, but falls short of the demand.

For the 2023 funding cycle, the acceptance rate for grant applications fell below 42 percent, down from 52% last year. A total of 5,257 grant applications were submitted, and 2,201 were approved, according to the Jewish Federations of North America.

The $305 million available fell short of the $679 million that was requested in the applications, the federations said.

“It has become more critical than ever for our safety. We need that funding,” said House Representative Kathy Manning, a Democrat from North Carolina. “It simply is not enough.”

Manning, a former board chair for the Jewish Federations, called on her colleagues in Congress to support more security measures, and for an increase in the grant program to $360 million.

Applicants for the funding are evaluated through a scoring process, and those that are seen as the most vulnerable and most in need are moved up the list, said Karen Paikin Barall, an associate vice president at the Jewish Federations who deals with the grant procedures. The funding is distributed fairly but there isn’t enough to go around, she said, pointing to the amount of resources needed to secure Jewish holiday events, when many more people attend services than usual.

“There isn’t a security camera or security door that isn’t in some way costly and needing the help and support of these resources,” said Jewish Federations head Eric Fingerhut. In addition to the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, the federations operates a $130 million security campaign called LiveSecure.

The briefing was also attended by Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat; Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma; New Jersey Representative Chris Smith, a Republican; leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, the Orthodox Union, and the Secure Community Network, which coordinates security for North American Jewish communities; and representatives of other Jewish groups.

Speakers at the briefing denounced extremist discourse and hatred as fueling potential violence, and called to combat hate speech, as well as step up security for Jewish institutions.

“Pundits, politicians and platforms have embraced the type of hate and conspiracies that were previously for the fringes of society,” said Meredith Weisel, the Washington, DC regional director for the ADL. The organization has been targeted by Elon Musk on his platform X, formerly known as Twitter, with antisemitic tropes. Musk has loosened rules on X in the name of free speech, which critics say has opened the door for extremism and hate speech.

“We find ourselves now at a critical moment where the Jewish community is unfortunately once again in the crosshairs,” Weisel said. The ADL has reported a record number of antisemitic incidents across the US in recent years.

Police stationed outside a synagogue after threats to the Jewish community, in New York City, November 4, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The head of the Secure Community Network, Michael Masters, called for vigilance ahead of the High Holidays and urged worshipers to ask questions about their community security protocols and engage with safety procedures.

Synagogues should take steps to secure their livestreams, including by verifying viewers, he said, amid a rash of bomb threats and swatting attacks against synagogues. Many of the incidents take place during livestreams, when attackers know a synagogue is active and can view the results of their disruptions.

“Like we see in the State of Israel, we know we can overcome and protect our people,” Masters said. “We don’t want people questioning or choosing not to go to synagogue or participate in Jewish life because they’re fearful.”

“What you shouldn’t do is be afraid and not do anything and not show up,” he said.

Jewish communities have bolstered their security in recent years, especially after a white supremacist shooter massacred 11 worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018. Basic measures like reinforced doors, security cameras and a working relationship with local law enforcement are effective means to protect Jewish institutions including synagogues, summer camps and day schools, security experts have said.

That success was on display last month in Memphis when an armed man attempted to access the Margolin Hebrew Academy. The suspect, a former student who was apparently suffering a mental health crisis, was blocked from entering, fired his gun outside the school, and left the campus. He was tracked down and shot by police shortly after.

“I was on the phone when I heard the first gunshots,” Brandy Flack, the school’s executive director, said at the briefing. “I looked out the window and I saw a man pointing a gun at me.”

The school had upgraded its doors weeks before the incident with funding from the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, a measure that kept the shooter out of the building. The school used its security cameras to determine that there were no other shooters at the scene and catch the suspect’s license plate, helping police locate him. The staff’s relationship with law enforcement and security groups helped alert others about the threat, and within five minutes of the shooting, all of the area’s Jewish organizations and schools were on lockdown, Flack said.

“Nobody had to wonder what to do,” Flack said. “This grant, simply and clearly stated, saved lives.”

“There will be another attack. It’s an unfortunate reality,” she said.

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