WASHINGTON — The country’s largest synagogue movement is discouraging congregations from seeking federal funds to pay for security improvements, warning that such a step would violate the separation of church and state.
At issue is the Homeland Security Appropriations Act, a bill signed into law by President Bush earlier this month, which offers $25 million to nonprofit organizations, including churches, mosques and synagogues, for security retrofitting.
The Union for Reform Judaism, representing more than 900 congregations with an estimated 1.5 million members, opposed the bill mainly on church-state grounds. Now the organization is recommending that its member-congregations not apply to the Homeland Security Department for the newly approved funds.
“The board of the Union of Reform Judaism recommends that congregations don’t take this money,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s public policy arm in Washington.
Saperstein emphasized that even though the union’s board has consistently opposed tax-payer dollars going directly to fund houses of worship in any way, Reform congregations are free to make their own decisions on the matter.
Instead of applying for the security funds, Saperstein said, the union recommends that congregations turn to local Jewish charitable federations to receive “money freed up” from nonsectarian Jewish institutions that benefit from the new bill.
“The fact that some money now will flow into the community to beef up security at institutions that the federations would otherwise have had to pay for, I hope will be looked at by the federations as freeing up money that can go to the synagogues,” Saperstein said.
But it is unclear whether federations would respond positively to such requests.
Working through their national roof body, the United Jewish Communities, the federations joined the Orthodox Union, which represents 1,000 Orthodox congregations, in spearheading the push for the new Homeland Security funding.
“The very reason we sought federal assistance is because nonprofits and social-services agencies generally don’t have the funds that are needed to install security enhancements without having to cut back social services,” said Chuck Konigsberg, the UJC’s vice president for public policy. As a result, Konigsberg added, receiving federal funds would not free up excess funds, but simply would cover additional security costs that the federations cannot afford to cover on their own.
The UJC, which represents 156 Jewish federations and 400 independent communities in the United States, is advising federations on how to apply for the federal funding, Konigsberg said. The Orthodox Union will do the same, according to the director of the organization’s Washington office, Nathan Diament.
So far, no Reform congregation is believed to have applied for the newly approved Homeland Security funds. However, the largest Reform congregation in Baltimore, The Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, recently received funding for security retrofitting from the state government of Maryland.
Jonathan Stein, the senior rabbi at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York, said that his congregation would not rule out applying for the money.
“I almost always agree with my colleague and teacher and friend, David Saperstein, but I’m also the rabbi of a congregation that has faced increasing expenses for security since September 11,” Stein said. “I would not just ignore the church-state issues, but I would not be one to rule this out.”
The congregation’s annual spending on security personnel and insurance coverage has increased by more than $200,000 since the 9/11 attacks, the rabbi said.
“Before September 11, we did not have a paid security staff. We had a man at the door, and he was more like a doorman, greeting people and directing them to the right room,” Stein said. “We feel a responsibility and our congregations has felt the need for us to protect them, especially the children.”
Harvey J. Fields, rabbi emeritus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, said he agreed “with Rabbi Saperstein completely.”
“The danger is the adumbration of the line between church and state,” Fields said. “Synagogues, mosques and churches ought to be open centers of retreat and renewal. The expense of taking care of adequate security for our families and children ought to be borne by the religious institutions, not the government. It’s a piece of wisdom we’ve lived with well over the years and ought to continue.”
Saperstein described the new funding for non-profit organizations as “pennywise and pound foolish.”
Because schools, museums, universities, theaters, hospitals and the country’s 300,000 churches are all competing for the same $25 million pot as the Jewish institutions, synagogues are likely to receive only a small amount, he said.
Experts estimate that the average cost of upgrading the security at one synagogue is $75,000, according to Saperstein. “That means that you could use this money to retrofit 300 entities, less than one tenth of 1 % of America’s houses of worship,” he said. “To abandon the strong principles of our community on separation of church and state when it wasn’t necessary to do so, and, ironically, for so little, is not wise.”
Proponents of the bill counter that, under the bill, the Department of Homeland Security will allocate funds in a way that would accommodate as many eligible applicants as possible. Also, they say, Jewish institutions are certain to be given top priority, because of the assumption that they are at greater risk of being attacked by terrorists.
The Homeland Security Department is expected to identify criteria for eligibility in the coming weeks.
Proponents of the legislation were hoping that the GOP-controlled Congress would allocate the full $100 million that was initially earmarked for securing nonprofit institutions. But that figure shrunk by 75% before it reached the president’s desk. Despite their disappointment in the reduction, supporters are hoping that a $25 million allocation paves the way for an annual free-standing piece of legislation that would provide more money each year.