It was nearly 5 p.m. on Sunday when a group of weekly volunteers at FREE (Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe), a Chabad synagogue in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, finished assembling their last parcels for donation to a local food bank. Only upon exiting the building did the group discover it: a yellow swastika spray painted on an exterior wall of the shul.
Minutes later, a young man in yeshivish garb burst onto the scene. He had fled across Devon Avenue to FREE to escape the stranger who assaulted him on the sidewalk with physical blows and racial slurs.
The suspect, apprehended by police later that day, was captured on surveillance footage painting another swastika at the Bais Yaakov two blocks away. There was no video evidence of his antisemitic vandalism from FREE’s multiple security cameras, however, because the perpetrator chose a blind spot when he left his hateful mark.
“We need a new upgraded surveillance system,” Rabbi Levi Notik told The Jewish Press. “It’s not just that one spot – the whole thing has to be upgraded.”
Like leaders at many synagogues, schools, and other Jewish institutions across the country, Notik has a running list of security measures FREE can’t afford without outside help: a more effective alarm system; bollards to protect against a ramming attack from a vehicle; enough money to continue paying the off-duty police officer who guards the shul entrance on Shabbat and holidays; active threat training for staff. The list goes on.
Days after the hostage situation at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D – NY) and multiple advocacy organizations expressed support for doubling funding for a federal program created to help institutions like FREE harden and enhance their security measures. The Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) awards houses of worship, parochial day schools, and other nonprofits at risk for terror attacks with up to $150,000 in grant money, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Last year Congress allocated $180 million dollars for the program and less than half of the applicants were awarded grants before that money ran out.
How can institutions maximize their chance of obtaining funding? Will this year’s proposed figure – $360 million – be enough to meet the security needs of nonprofits across the country? Are there additional resources for Jewish institutions concerned about security?
Once a Precaution, Now a Necessity
The Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America, and the Jewish Federations of North America helped spearhead the creation of the NSGP in 2005. “It was in the wake of 9/11,” said OU Policy Center Director Nathan Diament. “There were anti-American and antisemitic groups overseas that were calling for [additional] attacks against the United States and also calling for attacks upon Jews in the United States, but they had not really occurred. Now, sadly, we’re living in a world in which there have now been not one, not two, but three attacks on shuls, not to mention all kinds of other antisemitic incidents.”
“Frankly, it’s disturbing that we’ve shifted from, in a certain sense, doing this out of caution to doing this out of necessity,” he said.
In 2021, 3,361 applicants sought nearly $400 million total in NSGP funds, and 1,532 applications were approved before the $180 million allocated by Congress for the fiscal year was gone. “That shows you that bringing it up to like $360 million is much more in the ballpark of the level of need and demand,” said Diament.
The program is not limited to Jewish nonprofits, and the percentage of Jewish institutions among the grant recipients or the total applicants is not readily available. The Department of Homeland Security’s Faith-Based Security Advisory Council did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Diament estimated that two thirds of the recipients are Jewish institutions, and offered “an educated guess” that this reflected the makeup of the applicants as well. Abba Cohen, vice president for government affairs and director of Agudath Israel of America’s Washington Office, estimated that more than half of recipients were Jewish institutions, and he hypothesized that Jewish institutions receive a majority of grants because they score highest in the program’s risk assessment system.
“The unfortunate reality of our times is that the institutions that are most at risk are Jewish institutions,” he said. “They should make their views known to their elected officials, how important these funds are for the security of their facilities and for the members that use them and for their families and their children.”
A Three-Pronged Assessment
“By most parameters, whether you’re looking at the New York City’s anti-Jewish hate crimes or the ADL’s figures, 2020 saw a drop of in-person incidents and 2021 has seen that scale up again,” said Mitchell Silber. A former director of intelligence analysis for the NYPD, Silber is executive director of the Community Security Initiative (CSI), joint project between the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of New York and the UJA Federation of New York. CSI serves 2,000 Jewish institutions, including 548 schools with thousands of students, in Westchester, Long Island, and the five boroughs of New York City.
Since the hostage situation in Colleyville, Silber has been “swamped” with phone calls and emails, he said. Institutions reaching out to him right now fall into two categories: those seeking a physical security assessment, which is required to apply for the NSGP, and those looking for active threat training. One day last week, 20 institutions signed up for security assessments in the course of just one hour, said CSI chair and JCRC associate executive director David Pollock.
When the NSGP scores an institution’s risk level, “risk is equal to threat, plus your vulnerability, plus the consequences,” Pollock explained. CSI sends assessors to help institutions identify threats, vulnerabilities, and potential consequences.
The worst kind of vulnerability is if unauthorized people get into your building, he said. “What we all need to do is to figure out a system where we can be both warm and welcoming, and keep everyone inside safe and secure,” he said. “We can use the grant to develop good identification systems, good ways to allow people in a safe way so that we can interact with people before they enter our premises to decide whether they should be allowed in or not.”
Assessing the consequences of an attack is not just about the number of potential victims in the moment but the long-term impacts as well. “What would happen if the [attacker] set off a bomb – what would happen if you didn’t have a building?” Pollock asked. “We had a similar situation after Superstorm Sandy, where yeshivas had to figure out where they could meet temporarily or go out of business.”
There is no prohibition on repeat-applicants or recipients, but there is a rating system that somewhat favors first-time applicants.
“It’s a competitive grant,” said Pollock. “The people with the highest scores get the grant, but it’s not necessarily the people who need it the most. I know of a lot of organizations that are at risk that could use the grant to protect themselves and their people.”
Raising Awareness and Improving Capacity
“We continuously find organizations and individuals that are as not as well positioned as they should or could be to apply for the grant,” said Michael Masters, national director and CEO of Secure Community Network.
“As a national organization, we along with the Jewish Federations of North America have been working to engage in stronger outreach and education.” Last year, they did six national webinars to help communities prepare their grants. This year, the plan is to not only do more of them but offer webinars on specific aspects of the process, like writing the threat section. Additionally, SCN hired additional staff to help institutions navigate the grant process, but they also created a standardized mobile best practice assessment tool, available to every security director in the Jewish Federation system, to do risk assessments more efficiently.
SCN is also coordinating with the Department of Homeland Security to enhance outreach to underserved and unserved communities, as well as organizations that exist within communities that have long been able to apply but maybe haven’t.
Masters wants staff at every Jewish institution in America to feel equipped to apply for these funds, he said.
But there is another problem, in his opinion. He doesn’t think that $150,000 federal grants from an $180 million or even $360 million pool of funds will suffice the needs of the country’s vulnerable nonprofits because that wasn’t what the program was designed to do. “The money was never intended to be a whole solution for an organization’s security needs. It was to help them with some part of their most pressing security needs regarding a terror attack of some kind,” he said.
“For context, impact-resistant window film can range from $20 to $30 per square foot. If you’ve got a big facility that adds up fairly fairly quickly. A day school could use up the majority of a grant just on that. A ballistic door can cost tens of thousands of dollars.” In short, federal grant money “is not intended to nor does it often cover the security needs of an institution,” he said.
There is hope, however, that some state grant programs can help fill the gap.
Can State Programs Help?
“Before 2017, Ohio essentially got no federal security funding, and no state security funding either,” said Howie Beigelman, executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities (OJC). OJC advocates for state and federal funding for communal security. This is because institutions in urban areas were eligible to apply to the NSGP since its inception, while institutions in non-urban areas did not initially have access to the same pool of funds. OJC worked with Sen. Rob Portman (R) as well as SCN, JFNA, and others to create a parallel federal grant program for regions that did not fall into the urban areas category.
Last year, Ohio nonprofits were awarded over $4.8 million from this federal grant program, “but there are still many qualified grant applications that go unfilled due to lack of funds,” said Beigelman.
A state NSGP program, first championed by then Senate President Keith Faber in 2016 (and signed into law by former Gov. Kasich) was made a permanent part of the Ohio budget in 2020 by Gov. Mike DeWine. DeWine, in partnership with state legislators, allocated $8.5 million for nonprofit safety in the current state budget.
Ohio is one of a limited but growing number of states offering state-level nonprofit security grant programs. The others are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania (a state-level program was also signed into law in Illinois in 2017, but the legislature has yet to fund it). In some states, these programs are similar in scope to the federal NSGP, while in others they serve specific types of nonprofits (schools, for instance), but in all cases they are an avenue to pursue in addition to the federal program.
Utilizing the services of local organizations like CSI or national organizations like SCN can also save institutions money. Rabbi Notik included paying for training in situational awareness and active threat preparedness among FREE’s potential expenses, but that training is actually available for free from SCN. The organization was even credited by members of Congregation Beth Israel for their safe escape.
“Those courses, that instruction, helped me to understand that you need to act in moments where your life is threatened,” Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker told CNN days after the events in Colleyville. “I would not have had the courage, I would not have had the know-how or [known] what to do without that instruction.”
“We weren’t released or freed,” Jeffrey Cohen, vice president of the synagogue’s board of trustees, wrote on Facebook. “We escaped because we had training from the Secure Community Network on what to do in the event of an active shooter.”
“They put a plan into action that allowed them to survive,” said Masters. “Security walkthroughs of that facility, physical security enhancements – some of which they were still in the process of making – and their training” were all critical factors in the positive outcome that day.
Rabbi Notik plans to apply for the NSGP next month as he does almost every year. Maybe this year he and Masters, who is also based in the Chicago area, can go over his grant application together and set up some training sessions as well.