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How an Anti-Terror Program Became a Jewish Earmark

Examining the grants program provides a window into Jewish organizational and political power. It is this power that allowed a small community to create and maintain a government program tailored specifically for its needs and catering almost exclusively to its members

The Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School, in Chicago, put in new lights around its building and parking lot and now has a state-of-the-art video surveillance system with 12 cameras. Congregation Brith Shalom, in Bellaire, Texas, now has blast-proof doors and windows. In Baltimore, the Bais Hamedrash & Mesivta school installed a new gate to the parking lot and placed cameras throughout the building. Earlier this month, Congregation B’nai Israel of Staten Island put new shatterproof windows into its 40-year-old building.

All thanks to the United States taxpayer.

Since 2005, the Nonprofit Security Grant Program administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has provided $118 million to not-for-profit organizations to become better prepared for a terror attack. In the context of federal spending, it’s a modest effort and considered a successful one: An aide to Janet Napolitano, secretary of homeland security, recently said that he knows of very few government programs that show such “big results with small money.”

The grants program is the pride of many Jewish communal leaders, proof of their commitment to improve security of vulnerable assets — houses of worship, schools and community centers. “The grants have been of tremendous value to this community. It is really unprecedented,” said Paul Goldenberg, national director of Secure Community Network, an organization established in 2005 to address potential communal security threats.

Homeland Security grants by year and organization. Click to enlarge. Image by Chart: Forward, Source: Department of Homeland Security.

There’s good reason for the Jewish community to be proud. A Forward analysis of the 995 grants distributed through the national program from 2007 to 2010 found that 734, or 73.7%, went to Jewish organizations. DHS announced its grants for 2011 in late August, and here, too, Jewish groups were the big winners, with 81% of those awards.

This disproportionate distribution is no accident. Examining the grants program provides a window into Jewish organizational and political power. It is this power that allowed a small community to create and maintain a government program tailored specifically for its needs and catering almost exclusively to its members.

The coalition lobbying for the program was led by United Jewish Communities, now known as the Jewish Federations of North America, and by the Orthodox Union and several other Jewish groups. “No one ever said it was a bill for the Jewish community,” an official involved in the process recalled, “but the main push came from the community.”

Some communal leaders oppose the program on constitutional grounds. “You’re endangering a fundamental principle of separating church and state in return for something that has very little impact on the community,” argued Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, which urged its synagogues instead to seek funds for security improvements from their own members and local federations, though some still applied for the grants, anyhow.

For more, see the Forward’s editorial about the federal Nonprofit Security Grant Program.

The Anti-Defamation League also expressed “both constitutional and policy concerns,” according to spokesman Todd Gutnick. “There will always be far more communal institutions that want or need security enhancements than government funds available,” the ADL said. “This inevitably leads to divisive intra-communal competition for these scarce resources, and a politicization of the grant-making process.”

Indeed, an analysis of grant recipients by the Forward, using documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, shows that the funds are not equally distributed throughout the community. For instance, the devout, relatively small sect of Lubavitch Jews received more grants than the entire Reform movement, the largest denomination in the country. Overall, Orthodox institutions were dramatically overrepresented, receiving about 45% of the grants that went to all Jewish institutions from 2007 to 2010.

Furthermore, when the Forward examined the grants distributed to Jewish institutions that have a specific religious affiliation, it found that about two-thirds went to Orthodox synagogues and day schools, even though only about one in 10 American Jews is Orthodox.

Beyond the religious and denominational disparities, the disbursement of funds also varies significantly depending on location. Some of the geographic clusters seem obvious: New York, with the largest Jewish population in America, received the most grants, while the Washington area has an understandably high threat level. Other patterns are less obvious. Georgia, for example, boasts more than 40 grants during the five funding cycles, while Pennsylvania received only nine, even though Philadelphia has the nation’s fourth-largest Jewish community.

Homeland Security Grants to Jewish Non-profits 2007?2010, by State. Click to enlarge. Image by Chart: Forward, Source: Department of Homeland Security.



The DHS program also does not distinguish between wealthy not-for-profits and cash-strapped ones. A small yeshiva struggling to make rent has to compete with a large synagogue in Beverly Hills or a wealthy congregation in Washington. A grant was even awarded to the American Israel Education Fund, which is an offshoot of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee and holds net assets, according to its latest tax filings, of $38 million.

The idea of a Nonprofit Security Grant Program was part of DHS’s Urban Area Security Initiative, which focused on strengthening emergency preparedness in urban areas most vulnerable to terror attacks. Advocates for the program, initiated in 2005, argued that while private companies can cover security costs by raising prices, not-for-profits are forced to trim other socially important programs to pay for extra security.

The Jewish groups who led the lobbying effort were joined by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Young Men’s Christian Association, the American Association of Museums and others. These efforts were met by a responsive Congress, and key lawmakers from both parties championed the legislation.

The program initially offered annual grants of up to $100,000. That limit was later dropped to $75,000, though some institutions have applied for and received multiple awards. The money can be used only for physical “hardening” of institutions at risk or for training personnel; it cannot cover the ongoing cost of security guards, which synagogues and others must pay for from their own budgets. And because the grants are used to reimburse the security upgrades, officials say that the process is efficient, with funds going only to completed work.

The legislation and the rules defining eligibility make no mention of preferring Jewish institutions, but in practice the program could easily be viewed as a Jewish earmark.

First, religious institutions are preferred over other not-for-profits. This policy is tucked into DHS’s official rules for evaluating grant applications. Each organization applying receives a score based on the merits of its request. Then the score of a “non-profit organization with religious affiliation” is multiplied by three, giving it a significant advantage over other applicants.

Second, high-risk metropolitan areas are given top priority in the grant process, and those “tier 1” cities — New York, Washington, Houston, Chicago and Los Angeles — have a heavy concentration of Jews. A second tier consists of cities that face less of a risk of terror attacks, including Miami, Boston and Dallas. Philadelphia had been in that second group, but was moved to tier 1 in 2010. Lobbyists are now working for the inclusion of Rockland County, N.Y., because it is home to a dense ultra-Orthodox population.

Third, an ambiguous definition of what constitutes a terror threat has enabled many Jewish institutions to make a stronger case than non-Jewish counterparts. The criteria established by Congress and DHS requires not-for-profits to demonstrate that they “or closely related organizations (within or outside the U.S.)” have been subjected to prior threats or attacks by a terrorist network. Taking into account incidents overseas allows Jewish groups to describe their threat level regardless of what is happening in their own communities.

Several Chabad synagogues contacted by the Forward mentioned the November 2008 attack against the Chabad house in Mumbai, India, as proof of their vulnerability. Other applicants pointed to terror attacks against Jewish targets in Israel as justification for the government funding. For example, a vulnerability assessment prepared for Brooklyn’s Yeshivat Mikdash Melech by an expert at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and submitted with its applications reads, “The core religious beliefs of the organization’s membership and their direct support for Jewish and Israeli causes invites continued threats.” Other filings obtained by the Forward also point to support for Israel as a source of threat.

Since September 11, 2001, the United States has foiled nearly three dozen credible terror plots, and more than 170 terror suspects have been arrested. The Jewish community was targeted directly in only a handful of these attempts. In August 2005, a group of Muslims who met in prison attempted to carry out attacks against synagogues and other institutions in the Los Angeles area. The plot was foiled before any damage was done. In May 2009, the FBI successfully prevented a bomb attack against a synagogue and a Jewish community center in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. And in October 2010, terrorists attempted to ship from Yemen explosive packages addressed to Jewish institutions in Chicago.

And in May 2011, New York police arrested two Queens men who had purchased weapons from an undercover officer to attack a synagogue.

Jewish groups, however, have a different count. They include the July 2006 shooting rampage at the Jewish federation building in Seattle, which left one person dead, and the July 2010 attack on Washington’s United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which took the life of a security guard. Both of these incidents were described by law enforcement authorities as hate crimes, not terror attacks. The perpetrators — one a Muslim, the other a white Christian — were not affiliated with a terror network and did not carry out the attacks as part of a broader agenda.

Yet, Beth Jacob Congregation, in Beverly Hills, cited the Seattle incident as the reason that it needed federal funding for security.

“We would categorize the Seattle attack as terror; others call it a hate crime. The definition, to a certain extent, is in the eye of the beholder,” said William Daroff, vice president for public policy at JFNA.

The line between crimes of terror and those of hate is murky, and to many in the community, it makes little difference. For Charlie Greinsky, president of Congregation B’nai Israel, in Staten Island, applying for the federal grants was a reaction to hate-motivated attacks against his synagogue. In August 2008, swastikas and the number 88, a symbol used by neo-Nazis, were spray painted on the building. “We’ve had periodically, over the years, swastikas and that type of garbage, as well as our windows had been shot at,” Greinsky said.

“Jews will always be a specific target of terror attacks,” said Peter Chalk, a senior analyst with the RAND corporation. But he added that “there is no special effort in the U.S. to single out a Jewish target. Usually they [Al Qaeda] will choose a general civilian target.”

Only a handful of Muslim institutions have received federal assistance to upgrade security. “We have a real need for these kinds of grants,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Though he pointed to several recent attacks against mosques, Hooper said he did not believe that Muslims are intentionally sidelined by the grant process.

“There is nothing nefarious about it,” he said. “I just think the Jewish community is more plugged in than us and that is why we see this disparity.”

And some Jews are more plugged in than others. The Forward’s analysis found that certain denominations and regions were more successful at winning grants because they were well-organized and proactive.

The Orthodox Union played a leading role in lobbying for the grant program and has since urged its members to apply. Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs, said his group helped many synagogues and day schools with the application process, and it paid off: Of those assisted by the O.U., nearly three-fourths won their grants.

Standing out among the Orthodox groups receiving government funds is Chabad, with more than 70 grants for its synagogues and centers. Chabad’s tight network of emissaries helped spread the word, and the group’s strong presence in Washington provided assistance with the application process.

Ultra-Orthodox synagogues and yeshivas affiliated with Agudath Israel of America have also received grants in numbers far beyond their proportion in the Jewish community. Here, too, a proactive approach led by Agudath Israel’s Washington director, Rabbi Abba Cohen, made them better positioned to come out on top.

“If there is any preponderance of Orthodox institutions over others, it is only because they are numerous in the communities that are eligible for grants,” Daroff said. The concentration of Orthodox synagogues in the New York area, defined as a top-priority region, could explain the difference, he said.

But Saperstein believes that the disparity could be tied to a different set of values. “Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist will be more sensitive to the constitutional ban on funding religious activity,” he argued.

In response, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Washington director of Chabad and a leading advocate of the program, said, “At some point, the government is not protecting religion but people that belong to a religion.”

The Reform movement’s opposition did not deter at least 69 of its institutions from receiving government money, including Los Angeles’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, its flagship institute of higher education. While the vast majority of the nearly 1,000 Reform synagogues in the country supported the movement’s opposition, the fact that some did apply was cited as proof that even the most ardent detractors of the program have come to terms with its necessity or, at least, its promise of funds.

The distribution of funds also depends on the involvement and energy of local Jewish leaders. In New York, the Jewish Community Relations Council has emerged as a leading resource on security issues. David Pollock, the JCRC’s associate executive director, has led an effort to actively reach out to congregations and institutions to help them through the application process. “It is sad that some have to make a choice between spending money on security or on programming,” Pollock said. “These grants help us avoid having to make this choice.”

Smaller Jewish communities have adopted New York’s approach and succeeded in bringing in millions in government grants. Notable among these communities are those in Houston and Atlanta.

“We definitely put the word out,” said Tali Benjamin, marketing director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. The federation’s in-house security director and grant writer assisted 26 synagogues and institutions in applying. Debbie Kalwerisky, executive director of Congregation Beth Tefillah, in Atlanta, credited the federation with making the process manageable. “They came out and helped us do an evaluation of our needs,” she said.

Philadelphia appears to be a different story. The local federation says that it has tried to make agencies and synagogues more aware of the program, but has not been as successful as cities with smaller Jewish populations. “I don’t know what the rhyme or reason is,” said Robin Schatz, director of government affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The federation has offered help with grant writing, but a workshop it organized last year was sparsely attended. “Could we use more money? Absolutely,” said Schatz.

In conversations with leaders of dozens of synagogues and other Jewish organizations around the country, the Forward found that combating crime, not preventing terrorism, was the prime motivation to apply for the federal money.

“We had been thinking for a long time about upgrading our security, not really because of any particular issue,” said Rabbi Adam Zeff of the Germantown Jewish Centre, in Philadelphia. “There were some incidents that we found that we were unable to deal with — people getting into the building, vandalism on our playground. The homeland security grant was important to us because it expanded our vision of what we could do.”

A similar view was expressed by Hanna Belsky, administrator of Chicago’s Hanna Sacks Bais Yaakov High School. “There have been incidents like a broken window, somebody getting in the school,” she said. “Our parking lot is open to the street, and now with the money, it’s a private parking lot.”

Without the grant, she added, “we would not have been able to afford a penny. This was our dream.”

Andrew Tobin and Gianna Palmer also contributed to this story.

Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected]

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