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Scarred by attacks, Jewish communities in US consider enhancing security measures

Push comes amid heightened fears about the vulnerability of Jewish institutions and antisemitic incidents

A Star of David hangs from a fence outside the dormant landmark Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
A Star of David hangs from a fence outside the dormant landmark Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

AP — A year before the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, a security director from the city’s Jewish federation came to the house of worship to train its religious school staff and rabbi on how to respond to violent situations. At the time, Stephen Weiss thought it was unnecessary.

But Weiss, then a teacher at the synagogue’s religious school, attended the training, where he was taught to avoid being easily seen by an active shooter and strategies to get away from dangerous areas. Both lessons proved useful in 2018 when a gunman entered the synagogue and killed 11 people in the nation’s deadliest antisemitic attack.

“That training is what saved my life,” he said. As the shots rang out, Weiss, 63, said he was able to sneak away, alert another congregation that met in the building and eventually escape outside through a side door.

Currently, the Jewish Federations of North America, or JFNA, is aiming to give Jewish communities across the country similar training and know-how to help them respond to security threats. The organization has embarked on an initiative, called LiveSecure, to bolster security in Jewish communities by launching new security programs or enhancing ones they already have.

The push comes amid heightened fears about the vulnerability of Jewish institutions and antisemitic incidents. The Anti-Defamation League counted 2,024 cases of harassment, vandalism and assault in the US in 2020, the third highest on record since the Jewish civil rights group began tracking incidents in 1979.

The ultimate goal of JFNA’s initiative is to raise $126 million across the federations network over three years, and ensure all 146 communities where Jewish federations are currently located have security hubs, up from 45 today. JFNA itself is aiming to raise $54 million of that, a majority of which is earmarked for local Jewish federations who also raise their own funds.

Illustrative photo of antisemitic graffiti on a building near the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville. (Courtesy of Michaela Brown)

The initiative launched in October, but the rollout was sped up following the 10-hour standoff at a Colleyville, Texas, synagogue last month, where four people were held hostage by a gunman voicing antisemitic conspiracy theories. A JFNA spokesperson said the organization had raised around $40 million before the hostage standoff. Following the ordeal, more donations came in from philanthropies and other “significant donors,” but the organization still hasn’t reached its $54 million fundraising goal.

“Ideally, we were going to wait until every penny was raised to begin the granting process,” said Julie Platt, JFNA’s national campaign chair. “We’re not going to…we don’t want to wait for another minute, or another incident.”

Local federations, both in the US and Canada, will be able to start applying for matching grants for security needs on Feb. 10, according to the spokesperson. Some of the money — $18 million — is slated to go to Secure Community Network, or SCN, one of the entities Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker credited with providing him the training that helped get him and three other hostages out safely in the Texas incident. According to Michael Masters, the national director of SCN, the organization trained more than 17,000 people last year.

Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim, a deputy director at Ruderman Family Foundation and a scholar of philanthropy in Jewish communities, said though conversations about securing Jewish institutions have been happening for a long time, the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue was a watershed moment that led to a surge in fundraising for better security.

Philanthropies, like the Jim Joseph Foundation, Crown Family Philanthropies and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropies have pitched in to support LiveSecure. But success is not just reaching fundraising goals, said Bar Nissim. “But actually, over time, making sure the use of these funds is the most impactful.”

Public dollars are at play, too. The federations and other advocacy groups are currently lobbying Congress to double funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, a $180 million program administered by Federal Emergency Management Agency and given to nonprofits the agency considers “high risk of terrorist attack.”

Part of the push behind LiveSecure is to help more synagogues, Jewish summer camps, schools and other institutions attain the federal grants, which can be competitive. Last year, nonprofits requested nearly $400 million in funding for security cameras, and other equipment and security needs, far more than the amount appropriated for the program.

Funding for the grant has increased over the years, and the push to bolster the program even more has received bipartisan support. But extra funding isn’t budgeted and an additional $100 million earmarked in the Build Back Better Act is currently stalled in Congress.

Meanwhile, states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey have launched their own versions of the grant.

Josh Kashinsky, executive director of Congregation Beth Israel in Portland, Oregon, said his synagogue was approved for a grant from the federal government for security and is currently vetting vendors to modify its building to make it safer by adding lighting, cameras and more secure entrances.

“It’s been hugely helpful to make significant capital improvements knowing that some of them are funded, that we can proactively improve security,” Kashinsky said.

Though all nonprofit institutions are eligible to apply for the government grant, some in the congregation are uneasy about accepting the funds.

“There are members of our community, who are also, sometimes ideologically, a little uncomfortable about us receiving federal money for this purpose, because of the larger questions of separation of church and state,” Kashinsky said. “We’re aware of the potential issues there. But, at the same time, because our elected leaders have decided to make this money available to us, it also feels like it would be irresponsible to our community to not pursue receiving some of this funding, even if some of our community might object to the concept that that funding was made available to religious institutions overall.”

Local federations also fund community safety directors across the country, who serve as liaisons with area law enforcement agencies and help with training and vulnerability assessments.

“None of us individually would have been able to have a professional at this level be able to work on behalf of security for the community,” Kashinsky said. “It’s also allowed for a lot more trainings to happen within our community — on everything from first aid to situational awareness trainings, and other sort of responses.”

The shifting priorities for security are on display in the buildings themselves. At Congregation Beth Israel, which was founded in 1858 before Oregon was a state, most people don’t come in through the grand entrance of big glass doors and floor-to-ceiling windows any more because access there is now limited for security reasons. Most people enter through a small door that was originally designed as a staff entrance.

“We can see there was a time when security was not as high a priority,” Kashinsky said. “I imagine today that building wouldn’t be designed with glass being the major feature there.”

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