In the face of a spike in anti-Semitic activity in the nation and in New York State, both the state and federal governments have awarded millions of dollars in grants to Jewish day schools, Jewish community centers, synagogue preschools and Jewish cultural institutions in the state to pay for cameras and other security enhancements.
Additionally, the state has created a toll-free hotline — (888) 392-3644 — to file bias or discrimination complaints; you can also text HATE to 81336.
“We’re seeing more racial tension than ever before, more white supremacist groups than ever before, more Ku Klux Klan groups than ever before, and we’re seeing more acts of anti-Semitism than we have seen in years,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during a recent visit to the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway, whose three buildings each received $50,000 in state grants.
Cuomo pointed out that the Anti-Defamation League reported a 60 percent increase in anti-Semitic activity between 2017 and 2018.
“How frightening was that?” he asked rhetorically. “And in New York State we’ve seen a 90 percent increase in anti-Semitic activity. It is frightening.”
In all, the State Legislature approved $25 million through the Security Communities Against Hate Crimes Grant Program. The first round of allocations was made last week. On Long Island, they totaled $2.1 million for projects at 45 facilities to help prevent hate crimes or attacks against them because of their ideology, beliefs or mission.
All but two of the grants – which went to Catholic institutions — were presented to Jewish facilities. Four of the five JCCs received grants, along with several Orthodox yeshivas, a Conservative day school, and nine synagogue nursery schools. Among the synagogues receiving grants were such Orthodox institutions as Chabad of Port Washington and Congregation Sons of Israel. Among the Conservative synagogues were the Midway Jewish Center and the Woodbury Jewish Center. The only Reform synagogue was Temple Sinai of Roslyn.
Another $5.8 million went to 118 projects in Brooklyn. Although some went to Catholic and Muslim institutions, the vast majority went to Jewish facilities.
A second round of state grants will be distributed at a later date because not all of the $25 million has been allocated. Further details about the application process are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
“The national security threat advisory says that the greatest threat to the homeland is from homegrown violent extremists — and those can be from the far right and the far left, or, radicalized Muslims,” said David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
“There are ongoing threats and there have been many attacks against Jewish institutions,” Pollock pointed out. “In 2009, there was an attempt to plant bombs at two synagogues in Riverdale. … In December 2014, a rabbinical student at 770 Eastern Parkway, Crown Heights – Chabad headquarters – was stabbed. There was a shooter at a JCC in Kansas, and a security guard was shot and killed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. … There is a fine line between threats and attacks. We don’t know when that fine line will be crossed, so it’s best to refine our security measures to that we can protect our most valuable assets – our people.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said of the grants: “We appreciate the help. According to data I see from the [Jewish community’s] Secure Communities Network, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have identified Jewish institutions as the most likely targets for both domestic and foreign terrorism. … One of the reasons the government provides these grants is because they want to make sure our communities are as safe as possible.”
He stressed that these grants are open to all faith communities and that “it is our understanding that they are not a violation of church and state.”
Nathan Diament, executive director for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, said in a statement that the OU “has long viewed government grants to religious institutions as constitutionally permissible when awarded on the basis of religion-neutral criteria. That is the case with security grants — awarded to keep people safe. This view was vindicated last year by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 7-2 ruling in the Trinity Lutheran v. Missouri case.”
But the Reform movement disagrees. In a statement, Barbara Weinstein, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said: “The Reform Movement advocates strongly for the separation of church and state. We offer guidance urging congregations to forgo this type of funding, however it’s ultimately a decision that each congregation weighs for itself.”
Previously, grants have also been awarded to the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, Temple Emanu-El and Central Synagogue, all in New York City, according to Pollock.
He noted that the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and UJA-Federation of New York were part of the coalition of Jewish groups that sought the federal grants.
The federal grant for enhanced security has been awarded since 2007 to nonprofit institutions from the Department of Homeland Security. Initially, $15 million was distributed nationally and 21 percent of money went to New York institutions. Last year, $25 million was allocated (the largest amount ever) and New York received 27 percent of the distribution.
The state grants focus on exterior security upgrades, such as reinforced doors, blast mitigation film on windows to prevent splintering, bollards to prevent car ramming, access control and security cameras. The federal grant allows all of that, plus locking systems inside buildings to allow for lockdowns and such interior hardware upgrades as screening systems, including x-ray machines for mail, according to Pollock.
In addition, the federal grants will pay for planning in the event of an active shooter situation.