newsJewish Diaspora

In the aftermath of Pittsburgh, a focus on improving building security and know-how

Enhancements include alarm systems, impact-resistant doors and gate, lighting, access control systems, video systems, jersey walls, fencing, and fixed or handheld screening systems.

Community Security Service volunteers stand guard outside an urban synagogue. Credit: Community Security Service.
Community Security Service volunteers stand guard outside an urban synagogue. Credit: Community Security Service.

In the aftermath of Saturday’s shooting at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 Jewish worshippers were shot dead and six others injured by a lone gunman, have come calls for increased security at Jewish institutions across the United States. Although this funding cannot be used for armed security, synagogues and other Jewish places have relied on a Department of Homeland Security grant to protect themselves.

“The primary purpose of the Nonprofit Security Grant Program is to provide funding support for target hardening and other physical security enhancements to nonprofit organizations,” a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency told JNS. “As such, personnel costs are generally not allowable.”

According to the FEMA spokeswoman, examples of such enhancements include “alarm systems, impact-resistant doors and gate, lighting, access control systems, video systems, jersey walls, fencing, fixed or handheld screening systems, etc.”

The maximum awards were $150,000 for the NSGP-Urban Area program and $100,000 for the NSGP-State program. Nonprofits can apply for the grant every year.

Since its founding in 2002, the Department of Homeland Security has operated the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) to “provide funding to support target hardening and other physical security enhancements for nonprofit organizations that are at high risk of a terrorist attack,” according to the agency. For the 2018 fiscal year, $60 million was allocated towards the initiative, which includes supporting synagogues and other houses of worship.

As of 2014, out of all religious affiliations, Jewish institutions have received the largest share of allocated funding under the NSGP, according to figures provided to JNS by FEMA.

In 2014, Jewish institutions received $12,239,283 out of the $13 million allocated to faith-based institutions (or 94.84 percent); in 2015, they received $12,256,250 out of $13 million (or 94.28 percent); in 2016, they got $18,052,439 out of $20 million (or 90.26 percent); in 2017, they were awarded $23,203,758 out of $25 million (or 92.82 percent); and in 2018, they obtained $53,317,664 out of $60 million (or 88.86 percent).

Over the four-year period, Jewish institutions have received $119,069,404 of the $131 million, or almost 91 percent of total funding, allocated to faith-based places through the NSGP.

Matters of communal safety and security

One synagogue that has received the grant is Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood, which will be used for “upgrades to our current level of security,” according to synagogue president Drew Cooper in a letter to congregants in the aftermath of the shooting, which included prayers to those affected by the tragedy.

Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood.

Nearby, Sixth & I Synagogue has also been a recipient of the NSGP, though that’s not the only measure the house of worship takes to protect its attendees.

“For many years, Sixth & I has taken extra security precautions at all of our programs and events,” Michelle Eider, communications senior associate for Sixth & I, told JNS. “We will continue to do so, and we are working with the Metropolitan Police Department and other local law enforcement to ensure that our security measures are appropriate.”

The Jewish Federations of North America, which does not send Jewish institutions security funding, encourages those places to work with the federation’s Secure Community Network, formed in 2004 by United Jewish Communities and the American Jewish Committee, “serving the American Jewish community concerning matters of communal safety, security, and all-hazards preparedness and response,” according to SCN’s website.

Along with Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett, representatives of the member organizations of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in addition to other local and national Jewish heads, assembled at the UJA-Federation building in New York to discuss the synagogue attack, the status of anti-Semitism in the United States and how to better protect American Jewish institutions, according to a statement from the umbrella organization.

Jewish leaders gather to address growing anti-Semitism. From left: Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman/CEO, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Naftali Bennett, Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs and Minister of Education; Eric Goldstein, CEO, UJA-Federation; and Arthur Stark, chairman of the Conference of Presidents. Credit: Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Volunteers get training

Founded in 2007 by David Dabscheck, CEO of the consulting agency GIANT Innovation, and Adam Sager, a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces and head of the security company Canary, the Community Security Service consists of thousands of volunteers who are trained to guard synagogues and other Jewish institutions.

“We have been inundated with requests [for CSS services] since Saturday,” Jason Friedman, executive director of Community Security Service, told JNS. “We will be holding a series of webinars to provide more information on the concept of communal security and ensure that we can support as many people as possible with our limited resources.”

Synagogues may request CSS assistance as long as the rabbi and board approve, according to Friedman.

“We harness members’ inherent knowledge of the Jewish community, and layer on tried-and-true security techniques so that our volunteers are able to detect signs of trouble and prevent or mitigate a possible attack,” he explained.

Volunteers undergo a basic course over the span of a few evenings, followed by the option to take more courses related to advanced topics. CSS also gives basic self-defense training.

“CSS focuses on the human element of security—training the person who can spot the suspicious bag on a High Holiday. Ensuring that a volunteer is correctly positioned to lock the door in an emergency,” said Friedman. “Making sure the person who is going to call the police can give an accurate description of events. Having an expensive alarm system is great, but we ensure that someone is designated to utilize it.”

“We firmly believe that every Jew has the right and responsibility to be an educated part of their community’s security process,” he continued. “As such, we believe the human element of security drives all others.”

Synagogues such as Kesher Israel utilize CSS. Sometimes, their services can be taken for granted.

“Next time you come to shul and pass by your fellow congregant standing guard as part of CSS, make sure to give them a heartfelt ‘thank you,’ ” former Kesher Israel president Elanit Jakabovics posted on Facebook shortly after the shooting. “They are on the front lines, for the safety of the entire community.”

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