We must do more to protect American Jews
Last weekend’s harrowing hostage-taking saga at a synagogue in North Texas came as a stark and scary reminder that houses of worship, especially Jewish ones, are still prime targets for violent extremists.
Jewish communities are relieved and thankful that the rabbi and his congregants got out of the building physically unharmed, but we know that the next time victims of such an attack may not be so fortunate.
After our houses of worship were attacked in Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City and now Colleyville, synagogues and Jewish communal organizations across the country are bracing themselves for the next violent intruder.
The FBI and Department of Homeland Security warned in a letter on Monday that faith-based organizations remain in the crosshairs of both domestic and foreign terrorists.
The agencies reported that online forums call for violence against Jews in particular, blaming us for the COVID pandemic, Donald Trump’s loss of the presidency, and even the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the resulting migration of Afghanis to the United States.
The frightening episode in Colleyville, Texas, was just the latest in a string of anti-Semitic attacks that have become all too common on our streets and in our Jewish communal buildings. They have made American Jews constantly fearful and on edge in the very country that, until now, has provided us the freest and safest environment we have known in all of our long and often painful history. In just the past year, according to a report by the ADL, 40 percent of Jews have became more concerned about their personal safety than before.
Synagogues are not alone in facing this threat. FBI statistics show that houses of worship of every faith are facing a spike in vandalism, arson and other property damage. But the Jewish community certainly bears a disproportionate brunt of that hatred. Those same FBI statistics put the last year on track for the highest instances of hate since 2001, a significant portion of which were fueled by religious bigotry. Of those, some 57 percent targeted Jews, a population that represents just 2 percent of the population.
That is why we are requesting that Congress increase funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP). Without a dramatic increase in the availability of federal funds for nonprofits, including houses of worship, to protect themselves, we fear our community and others will remain unprotected when the next violent incident rears its ugly head. As Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said following the crisis, increasing funding for the NSGP is a “foundational step to reinforce and fortify pillars of our community, places that should always remain houses of worship, prayer, and gathering in peace.”
We are grateful for the $180 million Congress allocated to the program in fiscal 2021, but we agree with the many congressional leaders, in both parties, who are calling for much more to be done to meet the needs of nonprofits at a time of growing political division and multiplying threats of violence. Last year, just 45 percent of applicants were approved for funds, leaving many nonprofits without the means to boost their physical security.
Attempts to top up the program by $100 million through Build Back Better have, for now, stalled along with the legislation.
We understand that the work of securing our communities requires public-private-philanthropic partnership. That is why Jewish Federations launched and are now accelerating the rollout of LiveSecure, the largest philanthropic campaign in history to secure our communities from the ever-rising threat of anti-Semitism. We are raising tens of millions of dollars to put into place an ambitious, wide-ranging plan that will help Jewish organizations across North America protect themselves from exactly these kinds of heinous attacks.
It is why we created the Secure Community Network (SCN) in the wake of 9/11, to provide expert training, guidance and resources to Jewish organizations, along with 24-hour monitoring and regular coordination with law enforcement. This security apparatus helps communal organizations keep appraised of every warning, potential threat, and incident of concern in every Jewish community across the continent. It’s one reason that the FBI thanked and acknowledged Jewish Federations and SCN at their press briefing immediately after the safe extraction of the hostages in Colleyville, and pledged to work with us throughout the country on the safety of Jewish communities.
Indeed, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, one of the four hostages, has publicly praised the security training that he received from SCN, and said explicitly that it helped save him and his congregants.
But we cannot do it alone. The cost of preventing these incidents, and minimizing the harm of those that do occur, is far in excess of what we are able to raise on our own. That’s where the Nonprofit Security Grant Program comes in.
We must not let terrorists compromise our physical safety. Just as importantly, we must not allow them to take hostage our entire way of life, including our ability to affirm and celebrate our Jewishness proudly and publicly without fear of death every time we walk into a synagogue or other Jewish building.
There’s more that Congress can do in addition to expanding nonprofit security grants. It can designate the charitable sector as a critical part of the nation’s infrastructure, supported by a comprehensive plan and the necessary resources to manage its risks, resilience and security outcomes. It can also enact the Pray Safe Act to establish a federal clearinghouse through which faith-based organizations, houses of worship, and other nonprofits can access information on safety and security best practices, available federal grant programs, and training opportunities.
But as the threats grow, and more and more faith-based organizations face increasing security risks, the demand for the Nonprofit Security Grants will continue to grow, not recede. We know that Saturday’s attack will not be the last, and we must be prepared.
Mark Wilf is chair of the Board of Trustees at the Jewish Federations of North America.
Julie Platt is national campaign chair and chair of LiveSecure for Jewish Federations of North America.