WASHINGTON – Congressional leaders from both parties agreed Monday to significantly increase the funding for a program that helps religious institutions install security measures. The program’s budget, which was $60 million in each of the past two years, will be raised to $90 million in 2020.
This is the highest sum ever allocated by Congress to support security at houses of worship and other nonprofit organizations. The funding comes after several violent attacks against religious institutions in the United States, such as the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2019 and an attack on the Chabad synagogue in Poway, California, last April.
Ever since 2005, Congress has secured funding every year for the Non-Profit Security Grant Program, providing grants of up to $100,000 to houses of worship, as well as to religious day schools and other community institutions, for the purpose of installing security measures. The grants can be used for putting in place security cameras, gates, locks, bulletproof windows and other protections.
Originally, the program’s budget was $25 million per year. Over the years, it has gone up and down, reaching the previous high level of $60 million in 2018. This year’s increase is the result of public efforts by American-Jewish organizations, reflecting the growing emphasis on security issues within the Jewish community. Anti-Semitic attacks have been on the rise in the United States in recent years, with the latest deadly attack happening at a kosher store in Jersey City last week.
The Orthodox Union played a key role in securing the funding increase. Nathan Diament, the organization’s executive director, told Haaretz that over the 14-year lifetime of the federal grants program, most of it has gone to Jewish community institutions. “Unfortunately, it’s not a new thing that Jewish institutions face a higher risk level,” he said. Diament added, however, that in recent years the program “has become better known among Christian and Muslim communities” as well.
Diament credited several lawmakers from both parties for securing the funding increase, most notably Rep. Nita Lowey (Democrat of New York), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee. “It was very good to see bipartisan cooperation on this issue,” he added. An official statement by the Orthodox Union also included praise for Senators Shelley Moore Capito (Republican of West Virginia), Rob Portman (Republican of Ohio), Gary Peters (Democrat of Michigan), Charles Schumer (Democrat of New York), Chris Van Hollen (Democrat of Maryland) and Roy Blunt (Republican of Missouri).
The increase in the overall budget will likely not change the specific amount that each institution can request. “The idea behind this increase isn’t to give more to each institution, but to spread the support to more places around the country,” Diament told Haaretz. He added that “for many years, the grants were restricted to specific geographic areas. Now, along with this big increase, they will be available everywhere.”
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Earlier this year, Haaretz reported on the growing challenges faced by Jewish communities across the United States as they try to deal with the issue of providing security. Amy Asin, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said at the time: “This comes up in every community – from large synagogues in the big cities to smaller rural communities. These communities want to find a balance between three questions: How do we make our communities as safe as possible, while keeping our desire to be open and welcoming communities? And how do we do those two things within the limits of our financial resources? It’s an ongoing struggle.”
Rabbi Jamie Gibson, who leads Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation in Pittsburgh, told Haaretz he has referred congregants to Israel when discussing the need for security measures: “I’ve visited Israel 32 times in my life and I’ve seen how Israelis treat it as an obvious thing that there are security guards at the entrance to every shopping mall. It doesn’t stop people from shopping,” he says. “The simple truth is that if people won’t feel comfortable in our communities, they won’t show up. We can’t allow that to happen.”