US Jewish organizations get $9m. for ‘homeland security’

Security grants for non-profits narrowly escape sequestration threat, with Jewish groups garnering 90% of available funds

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano (photo credit: CC BY The National Guard, Flickr)
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano (photo credit: CC BY The National Guard, Flickr)

WASHINGTON — American Jewish institutions will get a leg up from the federal government this year with the awarding of $9 million in non-profit security grants designed to help Jewish non-profits protect themselves against and respond to terror threats. Community leaders welcomed the announcement, which marked the eighth straight year that the Jewish community received the lion’s share of the available grants.

On Thursday, the Jewish Federations of North America expressed “gratitude” toward federal officials, including retiring US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and a number of Congressional leaders for renewing the grant, despite cutbacks to the federal budget.

The total budget for the grants this year was $10 million – down from $19 million in 2011 and $25 million in 2005 – with Jewish organizations receiving almost 90% of the awards. Although the budget for the program has declined precipitously under the continuing resolution budgets of the past two years, Napolitano ensured that this year’s awards would be spared from the across-the-board 5% cut anticipated due to sequestration.

“The Department of Homeland Security has demonstrated a great commitment to protecting at-risk communities,” said Michael Siegal, chair of the Jewish Federations’ Board of Trustees. “We applaud Secretary Napolitano for recognizing the merits of the program, sparing the program from $500,000 in sequestration cuts this year.”

Napolitano was not alone in her support for the program. Senate support for maintaining the grants was led by Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD), who was one of two co-sponsors of the initial program in 2005, together with former Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter (R-PA).  The program continues to receive such bipartisan support in both chambers, and Senate Appropriations Ranking Member Richard Shelby (R-AL) as well as House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) and Ranking Member Nita Lowey (D-NY), and Senate and House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee leaders also supported it.

The funds, which total $138 million awarded since 2005, subsidize efforts by non-profits — including schools, synagogues, and community centers — to acquire and install physical security enhancements and undertake preparedness training. Qualifying organizations must meet federal guidelines for a tax-exempt non-profit organization (known by its tax status as a 501(c)3), and must be judged to be “at high risk of a terrorist attack and located within one of the 25 FY 2013 UASI-eligible urban areas.” All but one of the ten largest concentrations of Jewish population in America — Cleveland, Ohio — are included on the list.

In the years after the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,  the Jewish Federations, and a number of partners in the American Jewish community including the Orthodox Union, lobbied hard for the establishment of the grants as a small subset of the $1.2 billion dollar Homeland Security grants available. The vast majority of the program – over $1 billion — is devoted to funding for state, local and tribal governments.

But despite its small size relative to the program as a whole, the non-profit grants have been valuable to the Jewish community. Recent past projects completed with the funds include installing a surveillance system at a local JCC, switching to bullet-proof doors and windows at a Jewish senior center, and placing x-ray machines at Jewish day-schools. Advocates say that these funds help stretch the budget at community institutions by providing for some of the security expenses.

For the past decade, the Jewish community has worked closely with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI to understand the terror threats facing American Jews. It was this cooperation that formed the basis of the idea to seek Congress’s establishment of the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, as well as to launch the Jewish community’s own security initiative, the Secure Community Network.

“Since September 11, nonprofits generally, and Jewish communal institutions specifically, have been the victim of an alarming number of threats and attacks,” said William Daroff, Vice President for Public Policy and Director of the Washington Office of Jewish Federations.

Last year, the wording of the funding guideline was changed to include organizations which were “determined to be at high risk of a terrorist attack due to their ideology, beliefs or mission,” a move made to counter allegations that the previous wording offered an advantage to religiously-oriented organizations. Previous non-Jewish awardees have included a diverse assortment of organizations – both a Washington DC Planned Parenthood facility and a New York Catholic church received grants in 2012.

Ironically, the program has become a popular topic among anti-Semitic conspiracy-oriented bloggers, who collect information on award sizes to argue that Jewish interests have undue effect upon the American government. Jewish community leaders are extremely involved in providing guidance for small institutions in applying for the grants, and while Jewish participation is high, it has fluctuated – from 2007-2010, some 73% of the funds went to Jewish organizations, while in 2012 the number peaked at around 97%.

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