In the Post-Poway Era, Jewish Communities Evaluate Shul Security Needs

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(AP Photo/David Goldman)

As anti-Semitic incidents and sentiment steadily rise in the United States, Jewish communities have begun to place increasing emphasis and resources on securing their institutions. While in the past such efforts have focused largely on schools, the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh and most recently at Chabad of Poway have shifted attention to making shuls secure.

Jews in many parts of Europe have become accustomed to heavily armed police and soldiers outside of their institutions. However, the idea that such a presence should be needed in America is a relatively new one. As the demand has risen, community advocates have made procurement of government funding that can be used to secure “houses of worship” a high priority.

Rabbi A.D. Motzen, National Director of State Relations for Agudath Israel of America, said that the increase in threats have slowly increased support for making public funds available to protect religious institutions.

“I can’t say that it’s for reasons that we’re very happy about, but more states are becoming comfortable with giving houses of worship money for security, and trying to expand that has become a high priority for us,” he told Hamodia. “Discussions are ongoing in a lot of states right now. The fact is that no public official wants to see a tragedy happen in their backyard. A fence or a camera, even a security guard, won’t necessarily stop someone who is committed to carrying out a terror attack, but if you make a place into a difficult target they might think twice, and it might save some lives.”

Government security grants for shuls have been available for some time. The federal Non-Profit Security Grant (NPSG) program began in 2005 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Originally funded at $25 million, allocation levels were cut over time. Starting in 2014 they were again increased, and they now stand at $60 million, $10 million of which are earmarked specifically for houses of worship. Key changes have been made to the program as well that have opened it to more institutions and allow funds to help pay for security guards, in addition to “target hardening” improvements.

The grants were largely the result of lobby efforts by the Jewish community, and some 80 percent go to protect Jewish institutions that are deemed to be at risk of terror attacks.

“Over the years, a lot of shuls and day schools have been recipients of the NPSG, and it’s definitely been one of the best government resources out there,” Nathan Diament, Executive Director for Public Policy for the Orthodox Union, told Hamodia.

Mr. Diament, who was part of the team that originally lobbied for the grants, said that efforts are underway to increase the appropriation to $75 million for the coming fiscal year and to win a five-year authorization that will lock in funds, rather than making their re-appropriation a yearly struggle.

In recent years, several states have taken steps to make funding for security at shuls available as well. Early in 2017, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo rolled out a program that made $25 million available to protect at-risk institutions as part of an effort to fight “hate crimes.” Mr. Diament said that, of existing state programs, New York’s has been the most “available and flexible” for use by shuls as well as schools.

Earlier this year, New Jersey’s Governor Phil Murphy set aside $2 million to be available for $10,000 grants to houses of worship.

Rabbi Avi Schnall, the director of Agudath Israel of America’s New Jersey division, said that although the funds are limited, the fact that it is a state program should make it easier for more institutions to receive them. He said that the state’s tight financial situation makes it unlikely that any increases will be made in the coming year, but that efforts are underway to take other steps that will make security options more available and affordable.

“I don’t think it’s realistic that New Jersey is going to be giving more money, and even though there’s a receptive ear for it now, by the time budget time rolls around in June, it might not be that way anymore,” he said. “What we’re working on is making it more practical to get the funding and to be able to use it.”

Part of this effort focuses on eliminating red tape. A draft of legislation sponsored by State Senator Paul Sarlo would allow houses of worship to hire what are known as class-three police officers. The classification applies to retired law enforcement personnel who are hired privately to provide security to an institution and have their equipment provided by the state, thereby cutting costs.

Rabbi Motzen said that in general efforts to lobby for additional funds have been joined with campaigns to make existing ones more accessible.

“A lot of institutions that may be very deserving hit barriers,” he said. “It’s very difficult for a small institution largely run by volunteers to apply for a grant. If you think about it, most shuls do not have the staff to do something like that. The lesson we’ve learned is that the easier you make the process, the more these programs will be able to accomplish.”

As threats escalate, more states are considering steps to help fund security at shuls and other places of worship seen as being at risk. Illinois State Representative Yehiel Kalish introduced legislation that would provide $30 million to protect religious institutions. The state’s governor, J.B. Pritzker, has said that he is reviewing the proposal but has not yet voiced support.

This Tuesday, a rally was held in front of New York’s City Hall to call on Mayor Bill de Blasio to provide funds to protect the city’s many shuls, churches, and mosques seen as being at risk [See related article in New York section].

In California, where the Poway shooting took place, Governor Gavin Newsom backed a proposal to add $15 million to the state’s budget to help protect “soft targets.” Introduced by Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel, it builds on a preexisting program that was funded at $2 million, only a quarter of which was ever distributed.

Dr. Irving Lebovics, President of Agudath Israel’s California Division, said that he was pleased with the prospect of additional funds, but that an equally high priority was building a more comprehensive system of coordination with law enforcement, as well as an organized community protection apparatus.

“We’re looking at a whole different kind of program that would work with the police department and maybe get them to guard some of the larger shuls, as well as setting up a communications system. In addition, we have a cadre of young volunteers who want to be trained so that, should anything happen, R”l, that they would be able to respond to it,” he told Hamodia.

Since the Pittsburgh shooting, it has been increasingly common in several areas for Jews who own firearms to bring them to shul for protection in the event of an attack. Dr. Lebovics said that in addition to wanting to protect the community, the need to provide a comprehensive response was in part a reaction to this trend.

“People are nervous, and with every additional event it becomes more of a concern, but for untrained individuals to start bringing weapons to shul is an accident waiting to happen,” he said. “It’s another reason why we have to provide a good alternative to make people feel safe.”

Government security funding has largely been limited to improvements like cameras, barriers, reinforced doors and the like. In some places, police do provide more patrolling for shuls and active-shooter training sessions have become more common. Even should a combination of grants and community funding allow for more live security guards to protect shuls, the question remains how taking such steps will affect the open culture at such institutions.

“The OU, or other organizations, can suggest best practices, but we feel that each shul — or yeshivah, for that matter — needs to decide what they are comfortable with and what will be the most effective,” said Mr. Diament. “What’s really important in our work is to make sure that resources are being allocated in a way that works.”

While smaller communities make it easier for police and a limited amount of grants to change the face of shul life, larger centers of Jewish life pose a much bigger challenge.

“It’s very hard,” said Rabbi Schnall, who is based out of Lakewood. “More shuls have had active-shooter training, and different ideas are in the works, but we can’t expect the police to patrol every shul in Lakewood…It’s also not a one-size-fits-all type of issue. A little shul in the basement of a house in a cul-de-sac doesn’t need the same type of protection as one on a main road.”

Lakewood’s former police chief, Robert Lawson, is the owner of Iron Rock Security, which has provided many local schools with private security guards. While their presence at Lakewood shuls is not widespread, he said that his company has received more calls expressing interest on the matter.

“Thankfully it’s been calm and quiet here and there has not been a need to call the authorities, but there has been an increase in interest from synagogues,” he told Hamodia. “I hate the fact that these tragedies are making our business increase, but an armed security guard is a powerful deterrent to someone looking for a target, and I get satisfaction knowing that we are providing more security to schools and other locations.”

Rabbi Motzen said that, while solutions would certainly differ between congregations and communities, the landscape of shul life seemed likely to change for many.

“It’s up to shul leadership to determine the balance between making a shul a welcoming place and a safe one, but it seems to me that my kids will grow up in a very different environment in shul than I did.”