WASHINGTON - Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker urged U.S. lawmakers to increase security funding for religious communities at a Congressional hearing on Tuesday, after surviving a hostage crisis in Texas last month.
"Every congregation needs to be prepared, yet the gap between the need and funding is profound," Cytron-Walker said at the hearing hosted by the House Subcommittees on Intelligence and Counterterrorism and the Emergency Preparedness, Response and Recovery.
"Preparation does not mean we expect calamity or live in fear of disaster. Preparation means that we will have the resources and policies and training to reduce the chances of a tragic event and increase the chances of surviving the worst," he said.
In the weeks since the Colleyville attack, major Jewish establishment organizations and nearly 200 bipartisan, bicameral U.S. lawmakers have rallied around doubling funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program [NSGP] — which provides financial aid for houses of worship and nonprofits to improve their security — from $180 million to $360 million.
Cytron-Walker previously praised his synagogue's camera system, paid for through the NSGP, which allowed federal agents to monitor the hostage crisis in real time. The 11-hour standoff ended after Cytron-Walker threw a chair at his captor and fled with his congregants, who were also being held against their will. He called the training he received "invaluable," noting his participation in training from the FBI, the ADL, Colleyville Police, and the Secure Communities Network.
Highlighting the rise of domestic antisemitism as well as violence and harassment targeting other religious spaces, including churches and mosques, Cytron-Walker said "no one should fear gathering to pray or celebrate or mourn or connect in their spiritual home."
"Right now, there are far too many houses of worship that are just beginning the process we started six years ago. Right now, there are far too many houses of worship that have developed plans and are counting on the Nonprofit Security Grant Program to put them into place and help them feel more secure in their spiritual home. Right now, there are far too many houses of worship who won’t get the support they need," Cytron-Walker added.
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Jewish Federations of North America CEO Eric Fingerhut also testified, urging the federal government to take a proactive role in ensuring the Jewish community's safety and security.
"It is, of course, the responsibility of government to keep all its citizens safe in their places of worship and other spaces for gathering. But we also have accepted the collective communal responsibility to ensure that all Jewish organizations are fully protected," Fingerhut said. "While we have raised and will continue to raise significant philanthropic funding, the resources needed are vast and ever-increasing. We need governmental support to fill the gap."
"Right now, the Jewish community has an umbrella that is filled with holes," he continued. "Those seeking to do harm to Jews will target those communities that are under-resourced and underprepared. It is critical that we have the funds to protect all members of the Jewish community, no matter where they live," adding that the NSGP "provides that essential public-private partnership to extend what we are already doing for ourselves and for what we expect will be growing interest in and demand for NSGP resources from other communities that are coping with their own threats."
The NSGP, which was established by Congress in 2005, has seen its appropriation levels grow from $60 million to $180 million since 2018. It is slated to receive an additional $100 million in funding in the Build Back Better Act, passed by the House in November, though that legislation has stalled in the Senate due to opposition from Democratic Senator Joe Manchin.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has publicly expressed support for increased funding beyond the $180 million, noting that the administration will work intensively with Congress to ensure faith-based communities are better able to upgrade their security. “Increasing this funding is a foundational step to reinforcing and fortifying pillars of our community, places that should always remain houses of worship, prayer, gathering, and peace,” Mayorkas said immediately after the Colleyville attack.