Rising numbers of anti-Semitic hate crimes across the country have left area Jewish organizations feeling vulnerable.
When it comes to bolstering security, the biggest obstacle for synagogues and other Jewish community organizations is how to pay for needed upgrades.
Last year, Pennsylvania lawmakers stepped in to assist, passing legislation creating the Nonprofit Security Grant Fund Program. Administered by the commonwealth’s Commission on Crime and Delinquency, the program’s first grant awards were announced earlier this month, totaling more than $5 million to be spread across 113 churches, synagogues and other nonprofits, both religious and secular.
The program’s first call for applicants elicited demand that far outpaced available resources — in a period of just four weeks, more than 800 organizations applied with requests totaling $27 million.
Less than one-fifth that amount was available; nearly 700 organizations’ applications were denied.
To Mark Zucker, chair of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, a big part of this initial funding round’s story is how many strong applications were denied.
“The fact that 694 facilities with requests exceeding $22 million in aid could not receive any monetary assistance under this program is a … surprise and a wake-up call,” he said, stressing that though this was a good first step, it’s important that it be just that. “To leave these hundreds of applicants without a way to safeguard their communal spaces would be a travesty.”
Still, Zucker was encouraged that PJC was able to work so effectively with lawmakers on the bipartisan statewide effort.
The October 2018 mass shooting in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life building “galvanized us into action,” he said. “It was a classic example of legislators working together with communities to address a critical issue in a timely manner.”
Of the 113 successful applicants, 38 were synagogues or Jewish community organizations within the five-county region comprising Greater Philadelphia.
“Because of the demographics of our district, there have been concerns,” said state Rep. Ed Nielson who serves the 174th District, which includes the neighborhoods of Rhawnhurst, Academy Gardens, Pennypack, Morrell Park and parts of Millbrook in Northeast Philadelphia.
Within Nielson’s district, where he said about 10% of the households are Jewish, Federation Housing and Congregation Ahavas Torah in Rhawnhurst will receive funding for security enhancements.
“In my area, we had about 10 to 15 places apply — some charter schools, some other churches,” Nielson said. “But (the locations selected) were where the hate crime incidents have been happening. This seems to be a targeted area, so we want to make certain that the Jewish population is protected.”
Per the legislation, recipients can use grant money for “any security-related project that enhances the safety or security of the nonprofit organization.” This might include physical fortifications and armed security personnel; it might also include safety and security planning and training, vulnerability and threat assessments and the purchase of security equipment and technology.
Moishe Vegh, Ahavas Torah’s president, plans to use all of the $25,000 in grant money awarded and then some to improve security at the Orthodox congregation of about 100 families in Rhawnhurst.
“With the grant, we plan on erecting stronger physical barriers, putting in automatic lights and things like that, but this is only phase one — $25,000 isn’t a ton of money,” he said.
“Coming next will be cameras, bulletproof windows and automatic safety doors so the sanctuary can be locked from the inside. Our goal is to prepare so that we make sure we’re as safe as possible.”
Federation Housing, which provides affordable housing to low- and moderate-income seniors, was awarded a $27,890 grant. It applied specifically for its Robert Saligman Apartments on Roosevelt Boulevard, which houses residents in addition to the organization’s administrative offices. Like Ahavas Torah, Federation Housing plans to bolster its visual surveillance system.
“We specifically wanted additional cameras so that we can have better tracking of folks coming in and out of our building — we have health care professionals and caregivers who come in and out and we presently do not have cameras on each floor to protect our vulnerable seniors,” said Debbie Zlotnick, a fundraising administrator for the organization. “And because we are a faith-based organization, and there’s been an uptick in anti-Semitic activity, we also feel that we’re vulnerable in that way.”
In the suburbs, Congregation Or Ami received $25,000, which it plans to use for, among other things, upgrading its security lighting. After the Pittsburgh shooting, said Rabbi Glenn Ettman, the congregation in Lafayette Hill subjected itself to a full security assessment.
Grateful for the award, Ettman was both surprised and not that so many across the state applied for the funding.
“It’s unfortunate that we live in a world where faith communities, specifically Jewish communities, need to be vigilant and sensitive to people who want to do bad things to us,” he said. “But we’re hyper-aware of our need to keep everybody safe to be able to do what we prefer to do, which is provide the services that make our community a holy place.”
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