For the American Jewish community, 2019 was a year of enormous trauma. The second fatal attack ever on synagogue worshippers took place in Poway, California – making the prior one at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life no longer an isolated event. Assaults upon Jews walking the streets of Brooklyn increased in violence and frequency. Patrons of a kosher grocery store in Jersey City were murdered. And the year ended with last Saturday night’s attack by a machete-wielding terrorist invading the home of a rabbi in Monsey during a Chanukah celebration.
Federal, state, and local governments have responded to these events in varying degrees. But we are now in the midst of what can only be called a crisis, and government leaders at all levels must do much more to protect Americans in their places of worship and their communities. We need our elected officials to move beyond statements of support and sympathy and take concrete action that will eliminate the ever-increasing threat to our community. There are several critical measures that Congress can and must enact as soon as possible to protect Jewish institutions as well as America’s churches, mosques, and temples, which also endured violent attacks in recent months.
First, we must dramatically increase the funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program administered by the Department of Homeland Security. Most synagogues and churches in the U.S. do not have the resources to install adequate security measures or hire security guards. Our organization and a coalition of faith community partners worked with bipartisan leaders to create the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) more than a decade ago.
We did so out of a sense of concern and an abundance of caution. We did not anticipate the nightmare our community is currently confronting. The NSGP makes grants to houses of worship and other non-profits deemed to be at risk of attack. The funds are used for things such as installing hardened doors, shatterproof glass, and surveillance cameras, as well as for hiring security guards. Congress responded to the greater need by increasing the funding level to $90 million for FY’20.
But even that higher level of funding is insufficient to meet the needs of vulnerable synagogues and churches, especially in the wake of last week’s attacks. That is why we stood yesterday with Senator Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerSenate to vote next week on Freedom to Vote Act To Win 2022: Go big on reconciliation and invest in Latinx voters McConnell-aligned group targeting Kelly, Cortez Masto and Hassan with M ad campaign MORE as he called from quadrupling the funding for the NSGP to $360 million. This is something that Congress ought to enact right away and not wait for the end of the standard appropriations cycle in September. The need is emergent, and it is the fundamental obligation of the government to ensure the safety and security of all its citizens.
Second, local police departments don’t have the necessary resources to increase their presence and patrols in our communities. The Department of Justice provides millions of dollars of federal assistance to local police departments for various purposes. Congress should authorize some of those grants specifically to support the deployment of police protection to houses of worship.
Third, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies need stronger tools to enable them to open investigations and prosecute the perpetrators of anti-Semitic and other hate crimes. Leaders of law enforcement have told us that the lack of a federal domestic terrorism statute is a real impediment to their work. They are unable to open investigations into individuals for lack of such a statute. Bipartisan proposals are pending in Congress and should be considered at hearings and voted on right away.
In his famous 1790 letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, President George Washington prayed:
“May, the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Now, in the United States of America, the Children of Abraham are afraid in a way we have never been before. We are under threat of violence as we walk down a city street or enter our synagogues to pray. All Americans should be fearful of this crisis, too, for it means our beloved country is losing an essential element of its founding identity — to be a beacon of religious freedom to the world. Congress must act in the first months of the new year to protect the American Jewish community and all communities of faith to sustain President Washington’s promise to us all.
Allen I. Fagin is executive vice president, and Nathan J. Diament is director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (the “Orthodox Union”)