This Bill Will Help Nonprofits Pay for Security Improvements

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the front of the Jewish Community Services Building, which houses Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia
The bill will allow groups like the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia to apply for security-bolstering grants for their facilities. (Photo by Eric Schucht)

For Jewish nonprofits in Philadelphia and across the state, there is relief and appreciation that, as of press time, Gov. Tom Wolf was slated to sign HB 859 on Thursday, Nov. 7, thereby establishing a Nonprofit Security Grant Fund.

The bill will allocate $5 million for the fiscal year to help faith-based nonprofits across the state put increased resources toward the safety and security of their facilities and communities.

“It’s sending a message that security is paramount,” said Naomi Adler, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, one of the organizations that worked so hard to get the bill to pass. “This is a huge step forward.”

Though the massacre at the Tree of Life building in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 2018, was certainly a catalyst for speeding the bill’s passage along, Adler said, conversations about how best to secure religious facilities had been going on for years. Even prior to the Stand Against Hate rally back in 2017, Adler and Jewish community leaders across the state had been working together to figure out a plan.

Another factor in the bill’s passage, according to Adler, was the sustained efforts of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition led by Hank Butler. The PJC lobbies the state government on behalf of Pennsylvania’s Jewish Federations and other community representatives, often working in concert with other religious advocacy groups.

“It is really, really clear that without the PJC, this legislation would not have passed,” Adler said. Noting that the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia had long been a major supporter of the PJC, Adler also singled out PJC Executive Director Butler for praise.

Though Butler had long worked in Harrisburg on behalf of the security of Pennsylvania Jewish communities, it was after the Pittsburgh shootings that leaders began to tell him, privately, “We’re not prepared for something like that.”

“The Tree of Life shooting was a wake-up call for everyone to get into a room, close the door and say, ‘What do we do, and how do we do this?’” Butler said.

The answer was a year’s worth of meetings, focused on figuring out how to model a system that would equitably disburse state funds to communities that needed help. The grant monies are intended to subsidize technology, response training, threat assessments and even specially trained canines for religious nonprofits.

In order to allow for smaller religious communities to get the funds they needed, a three-tier system was eventually decided upon.

Individual religious nonprofit entities will apply for grants from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Criminal Delinquency. Led by former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, the PCCD works with Pennsylvania State Police and Homeland Security to determine the applying community’s vulnerability and need.

The first tier of grants will award between $5,000 and $25,000, to be made outright, without a need for matching funds from the applying community; this, Butler believes, will allow needy communities to start instituting the basics of community security, like bulletproof glass and security cameras. Grants above that threshold, up to $75,000, will require a 33% match. The final tier will make grants of up to $150,000, requiring a 50% match.

It was important to Butler and others working on getting the bill passed that the final version would allow for security experts to be the body making security decisions, rather than politicians and committees. Determinations about community security should be “based on the expertise of the state police, Homeland Security and public safety experts,” Butler said.

“As the proliferation of hate crimes has increased in recent years, and white supremacist groups have grown in number, the need for security upgrades at our communal institutions was apparent,” said Mark Zucker, PJC chairman, after the bill passed the House. “How fitting, less than 24 hours after we marked in the one-year anniversary of the Tree of Life attack, a day which Gov. Wolf proclaimed ‘Remember Repair Together Day,’ that the General Assembly has shown concrete support for the safety and security of all Pennsylvanians.”

“Often, in Harrisburg, our failure to do good things just comes out of partisanship or comes out of different priorities,” said state Sen. Andy Dinniman, who introduced the original Senate version of the bill. “But in the end, we were able to put it together.”

After it is signed, the Nonprofit Security Grant Fund will begin accepting applications in March.

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