By HALELUYA HADERO, AP Business Writer
A year before the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, a director of security from the city’s Jewish federation came to the place of worship to train religious school staff and the rabbi on how to respond to violent situations. At the time, Stephen Weiss thought it was unnecessary.
But Weiss, then a teacher at the synagogue’s religious school, went through the training, where he learned how to easily avoid being seen by an active shooter and strategies for getting away from dangerous areas. Both lessons came in handy in 2018 when a gunman entered the synagogue and killed 11 people in the country’s deadliest anti-Semitic attack.
“This training is what saved my life,” he said. As the shots rang out, Weiss, 63, said he was able to sneak out, alert another congregation that had gathered in the building and eventually escape through a side door.
Currently, the Jewish Federations of North America, or JFNA, aims to give Jewish communities across the country similar training and know-how to help them respond to security threats. The organization has embarked on an initiative, called LiveSecure, to strengthen security in Jewish communities by launching new security programs or improving the ones they already have.
The push comes amid heightened fears about the vulnerability of Jewish institutions and anti-Semitic incidents. The Anti-Defamation League counted 2,024 cases of harassment, vandalism and assault in the United States in 2020, the third highest on record since the Jewish civil rights group began tracking incidents in 1979 .
The ultimate goal of the JFNA initiative is to raise $126 million from the Federations network over three years and ensure that the 146 communities where the Jewish Federations currently operate have security centers, up from 45 today. today. The JFNA itself aims to raise $54 million of that sum, the majority of which is earmarked for local Jewish federations that also raise their own funds.
The initiative was launched in October, but the rollout was accelerated after a 10-hour standoff at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, last month, where four people were held hostage by a gunman voicing theories of the anti-Semitic conspiracy. A JFNA spokesperson said the organization raised about $40 million before the hostage taking. After the ordeal, more donations came in from philanthropies and other “significant donors,” but the organization still fell short of its $54 million fundraising goal.
“Ideally, we would wait until every penny was raised to begin the grantmaking process,” said Julie Platt, JFNA’s national campaign chair. “We’re not…we don’t want to wait another minute, or another incident.”
Local federations in both the United States and Canada will be able to begin applying for matching grants for security needs on February 10, according to the spokesperson. Some of the money — $18 million — is set to go to the Secure Community Network, or SCN, one of the entities Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker has credited with providing him with the training. who helped him get him and three other hostages out safely. in the Texas incident. According to Michael Masters, SCN’s national director, the organization trained more than 17,000 people last year.
Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim, deputy director of the Ruderman Family Foundation and a specialist in philanthropy in Jewish communities, said that while conversations about securing Jewish institutions have been going on for a long time, the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue was a watershed moment that led to increased fundraising for better security.
Philanthropies, such as the Jim Joseph Foundation, Crown Family Philanthropies, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropies have lent their support to LiveSecure. But success isn’t just about hitting fundraising goals, Bar Nissim said. “But actually, over time, making sure the use of those funds has the most impact.”
Public money is also at stake. Federations and other advocacy groups are currently lobbying Congress to double funding for the nonprofit Security Grant Program, a $180 million program administered by the Federal Agency. emergency management and granted to nonprofit organizations that the agency considers “at high risk of terrorist attack”.
Part of the push behind LiveSecure is to help more synagogues, Jewish summer camps, schools and other institutions qualify for federal grants, which can be competitive. Last year, nonprofits requested nearly $400 million in funding for security cameras and other security equipment and needs, far more than the amount allocated for the program.
Funding for the grant has grown over the years, and the drive to strengthen the program even further has received bipartisan support. But additional funding is not budgeted, and an additional $100 million provided for in the Build Back Better Act is currently stuck in Congress.
Josh Kashinsky, executive director of Congregation Beth Israel in Portland, Oregon, said his synagogue had been approved for a federal government grant for security and is currently looking at vendors to modify his building to make it more secure by adding lighting, cameras and more secure entrances. .
“Making major capital improvements knowing that some of them are funded, that we can proactively improve safety has been extremely helpful,” Kashinsky said.
Although all nonprofit institutions are eligible to apply for the government grant, some congregants are reluctant to accept the funds.
“There are members of our community who are also, sometimes ideologically, a little uncomfortable that we receive federal money for this purpose, because of the larger issues of separation from the Church and State,” Kashinsky said. “We are aware of the potential problems there. But, at the same time, because our elected leaders have decided to make this money available to us, it also seems that it would be irresponsible for our community not to continue to receive some of this funding, even if some members of our community might object to the concept that this funding was made available to religious institutions as a whole.
Local federations also fund community safety directors across the country, who serve as liaisons with area law enforcement agencies and assist with training and vulnerability assessments.
“None of us individually could have had a professional at this level who could work on behalf of community safety,” Kashinsky said. “It’s also allowed for a lot more training to take place within our community – on everything from first aid to situational awareness training, and other types of response.”
Changing security priorities are visible in the buildings themselves. At Congregation Beth Israel, which was founded in 1858 before Oregon became a state, most people no longer enter through the large glass door and bay windows because access is now limited for security reasons. Most people enter through a small door originally designed as a staff entrance.
“We can see there was a time when security wasn’t such a high priority,” Kashinsky said. “I imagine today that this building would not be designed with glass as the main element.”
AP Business Writer Glenn Gamboa contributed to this report.
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