Synagogues ramp up security in year since Tree of Life shooting

Synagogues ramp up security in year since Tree of Life shooting

Synagogues and other Jewish institutions across the U.S. have spent the past year implementing new security measures following the 2018 Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh that left 11 people dead.

Jewish leaders say the Oct. 27 mass shooting altered the Jewish community’s sense of safety and perceptions about the need for increased protection. The deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the U.S also created a challenge balancing safety with a desire to be welcoming.

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Rabbi Marc Schneier, founding senior rabbi of the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., said the shooting served as “the wake-up call to a new reality.”

“I believe that the massacre that took place in Pittsburgh — that will be seen as the benchmark in how synagogue security has changed for the American Jewish community,” he said.

Schneier said his synagogue has “exponentially” increased its security force.

Some smaller synagogues in Pittsburgh have taken other precautions in response to last year's attack.

Rabbi Chuck Diamond, who once worked at Tree of Life, said he no longer lists the addresses of his synagogue’s services online.

“It's certainly on all of our minds,” Diamond said. “And it's something you never get over. It becomes part of the fabric of your community.”

One organization that has seen a measurable change since the Tree of Life shooting is the Secure Community Network — a nonprofit dedicated to security initiatives for the U.S. Jewish community.

The group said it has seen a significant increase in requests for security assessments and training in the wake of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the U.S. In the 10 months before the Tree of Life shooting, it received about 500 requests for assistance; in the subsequent 11, it received 3,000.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) offers a grant to nonprofits, including Jewish institutions such as schools and synagogues, to enhance their security. The funding administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has jumped from $13 million in 2014 to $60 million in 2019.

The grants provide funding for security equipment, security exercises and training for security personnel and nonprofit staff. As of June, the grant was expanded to fund contracted security personnel and training for nonprofit members, congregants and volunteers.

Sens. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersAdvocates step up efforts for horse racing reform bill after more deaths Warren doubles down — to Democrats' chagrin, and Trump's delight Senators urge Trump to fill vacancies at DHS MORE (D-Mich.) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanWhy Republicans are afraid to call a key witness in the impeachment inquiry Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump GOP lawmakers fear Trump becoming too consumed by impeachment fight MORE (R-Ohio) have introduced legislation that would authorize grant funding of $75 million a year over the next five years.

Peters, a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he was surprised by the lack of federal data on how many people have been killed or injured in domestic terrorist attacks.

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“It's clear that we can’t effectively address this increasing threat if our government agencies are not tracking it, and we’re asking them to come forward with better numbers,” Peters said. “Because as those numbers come forward, in my mind, it'll be clear we're not dedicating the type of resources we need to be dedicating towards combating domestic terrorism.”

Portman said a variety of faith communities have expressed interest in the grants.

“Everybody's concerned and interested in learning what they can,” he told The Hill. “So it's a big deal.”

The House spending bill for DHS would boost the grant funding to $90 million for fiscal 2020.

Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the Orthodox Union, said he’s been working on security issues for Jewish institutions for more than a decade, but the attack in Pittsburgh prompted a “jump in interest” in obtaining security funding.

Diament, who worked with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Congress to develop the DHS grant program, is pushing for more funding at the state and federal levels.

“The grant programs are not funded at a level yet to satisfy all the needs,” he said. “There's a huge demand, so it's a competitive grant program. So not every institution that applies gets funding.”

The number of applications FEMA received for grants more than doubled from fiscal 2018 to fiscal 2019. Out of 2,037 applications this past fiscal year requesting a total of almost $140 million, more than 35 percent of applications were awarded funds, a FEMA spokesperson said.

But the Pittsburgh shooting was not the only deadly attack against the U.S. Jewish community in the past year. A shooter killed one person and injured three others in April at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California during a Passover service.

The Anti-Defamation League reported 1,879 anti-Semitic attacks in 2018, the third-highest recorded year since record-keeping began in 1970. The FBI reported a 37 percent increase in hate crimes against Jews from 2016 to 2017, the most recent data available.

The Tree of Life shooter is facing 63 federal charges and the death penalty. Prosecutors recently rejected his offer to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence without release.

"The reality is that people are scared or they choose not to walk into our houses of worship out of fear," said Michael Masters, national director and CEO of the Secure Community Network. "Then fundamentally, not just as a Jewish community but as an American community, we lose some of who we are in terms of our values as an open, free democratic society."