WASHINGTON — Changes in how homeland security dollars are distributed to not-for-profit organizations are likely to put Jewish federations in direct competition with one another for a small pot of funds.
After a year with no allocation of funds to not-for-profit sites, the Department of Homeland Security is again gearing up to distribute $25 million to such institutions that are considered at risk for a terrorist attack. But unlike in 2005, when money was distributed to cities to give to their most vulnerable sites, this year’s funds will be doled out directly by DHS.
It’s unclear whether the change will help Jewish sites, the largest benefactor of the grants, or hinder them. But some Jewish leaders are concerned that the new system will prevent local homeland security leaders, who have a better understanding of the local threat matrix, from making the funding choices.
“Will it still be possible to target the funds to the most at-risk institutions?” asked David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. “It’s hard for one government department to know what’s happening across the entire United States.”
Fueling concerns over the funding is a persistent resistance by some lawmakers and DHS officials to the notion of providing federal funds to protect not-for-profit institutions at a time when there are gaping holes in the nation’s security.
California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, himself a target of an attempted attack by the Jewish Defense League, told the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune earlier this month that he did not feel the program was a smart way to spend federal funds. Issa’s chief of staff, Dale Neugebauer, said in a response to a Union-Tribune blog posting that the congressman felt the federal government should have other priorities, like port security and cargo security.
And while the program has been heavily touted by Jewish groups, it is far from universally supported in the community. The Reform movement has opposed the allocation of money to religious institutions, believing it to be a violation of separation of church and state.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, said that a handful of Reform synagogues accepted funds in 2005 but only one was aware of the movement’s policy.
“All the other congregations, once we had the chance to give our position, accepted our recommendation that it would be constitutionally counterproductive,” Saperstein said. “Some even turned the money back.”
Jewish sites received roughly 60%, or $15 million, of the $25 million earmark in 2005, according to United Jewish Communities, the national arm of the network of local Jewish charitable federations. A wide variety of places received funds, from yeshivas and day schools to federation buildings and individual synagogues of all denominations. The amount given to each individual site has not been released, but Jewish leaders said that some locations received as little as $100,000 while others garnered several million dollars.
The money was allocated in 2005 as part of the Urban Area Security Initiative grants. Cities received a specific not-for-profit allocation based on risk, and local officials designated by the cities to distribute funds then doled out the money to the institutions they deemed most in need of such upgrades as security barriers, security windows and cameras.
New York City, for example, received more than $6.3 million of the pot. Sites submitted vulnerability assessments, and the state homeland security allocated the funds. Museums and universities were also a major recipient of the aid, Pollack said, noting that Jewish institutions were among the best at getting eligibility and application information to their membership.
Next year, however, the money will be distributed directly from Washington, as language has been inserted into the Homeland Security appropriations bill limiting how the program could be run.
It is considered a step up from this past year, when the money was not distributed at all. Appropriations language covering this past year required DHS to distribute the money based on a “verifiable, actual threat” rather than a potential threat, and no sites reached the threshold.
After an outcry from Jewish groups and some lawmakers, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he would begin allocating the money based on potential threat. That money was rolled over to create the $25 million earmark that is now being distributed.
Jewish communal leaders are concerned that under the new approach, DHS may feel a need to diversify the funds, either to provide them to more municipalities or to cut down the amount that goes to Jewish facilities. They say that Jewish institutions are at unique risk, citing the July shootings at a Jewish federation building in Seattle as an example.
The overall amount given to the New York and Washington areas under the UASI was cut by 40% this year, although the two regions still received the most money nationwide. Lawmakers have suggested that the department has not given sufficient deference to the increased risk the two areas face compared with the rest of the country. DHS officials countered that the reduction stemmed from a need to harden all areas of risk.
Jewish communal leaders are concerned that the same tug of war could play out over the not-for-profit funds.
No matter how it is distributed, $25 million is not expected to fulfill all the security needs of the Jewish community.
“It was never intended to meet all the needs out there,” said William Daroff, UJC’s vice president for public policy. “It’s meant to ensure the government is partnered with us on this.”
The program has raised Jewish facilities’ awareness of homeland security, he said, and many are subsidizing physical improvements on their own and raising money for additional expenses.
And it has heightened the government’s awareness, as well. New York State gave an additional $1 million to not-for-profit institutions last year, after combing through the grant applications for the available funds.
“It’s not like there is an open checkbook for the Jewish community,” Daroff said. “But when you have the government on your side, it helps you draw attention to the issue.”
Matthew E. Berger is a reporter for Congressional Quarterly.