As U.S. cities and states deal with shrinking federal aid for homeland security, one group is getting new funding - synagogues, religious schools and other nonprofit groups.
Tucked in the new $2.5 billion budget for homeland security - the prime source of antiterrorism funding for local governments and emergency responders - is $25 million for nonprofit agencies.
The measure was championed by Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), who said in an interview this week that many nonprofits have had to shore up security at their expense in response to 9/11.
Specter said the money was not solely for synagogues, but he said he did have local Jewish groups in mind when he pushed for funding.
International terror networks like al-Qaeda have made explicit threats against Jewish targets, Specter said. In response, synagogues and Jewish agencies in the United States have been forced to tighten security.
Specter added that with his work in the Senate on intelligence and homeland security matters, he had been privy to confidential government information on terrorist threats.
"This is not something I just stuck my finger in the wind on," Specter said. "I've heard a lot of testimony on risk factors for terrorism. I think nonprofits are a risk area."
Specter said that in other parts of the world, terrorists had struck "soft targets" such as synagogues, trains, restaurants, nightclubs, relief organizations, and community and cultural centers.
The $25 million in federal funding for nonprofits will be split among 18 cities that federal authorities consider the most vulnerable to possible terrorist activity.
Philadelphia and the surrounding four Pennsylvania counties are to get $1.3 million. In South Jersey, however, no community will get nonprofit grants.
Nationally, more than three-fourths of the grants will go to nonprofits in five cities: New York ($6.3 million); Washington ($4.5 million); Los Angeles ($3.7 million); Chicago ($3 million); and Boston ($2.1 million).
The idea of funding nonprofits drew some opposition in the Senate when it was being considered last summer. Among the critics was Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), who felt that the federal government should not fund houses of worship or religious schools.
But Steve Bloom, a lobbyist for United Jewish Communities, which supported the measure, said: "You're talking about protecting lives, not the furtherance of religion. It's like putting a fire hydrant in front of a church or synagogue."
Since 9/11, local Jewish groups have had to dip into their own accounts to bolster security.
In Yardley, Bucks County, Abrams Hebrew Academy spent more than $100,000 to install a gate and fence with barbed wire around the perimeter of the campus.
In Center City, the Society Hill Synagogue at Fourth and Spruce Streets installed security cameras and remote door releases for entrances.
And each of the eight Jewish Community Centers around Philadelphia have upgraded security with locked doors, as well as more guards. Funding came from members, said Marti Berk, a staff member with Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia.
"We had to squeak the money out of other budgets," Berk said. "Some services suffered in order to put in better security."
Federal officials in homeland security stressed that the federal grants for nonprofits were not the sole preserve of Jewish groups.
In Harrisburg, an aide to Gov. Rendell said the state, which will allocate the federal grants, will issue funding only to Philadelphia organizations that can demonstrate a real need.
"There's no way we can protect every nonprofit in Philadelphia," said Adrian King Jr., deputy chief of staff for public safety in the governor's office.
"We need to look very closely at risk and threat. Are there specific institutions that have received some type of threat? If so, that's where we want to target money," King said.
Jonathan Duecker, Pennsylvania director of homeland security, said his office had not yet worked out the details on how groups can apply for grants.
"We haven't created a scheme yet," Duecker said. "It's something new for us, too."
In addition to religious schools and places of worship, grants can go to any tax-exempt group under section 501(c)3 of the federal tax code. That could include museums, cultural centers, social service agencies and relief groups like the Red Cross.
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, grants will be made based on:
- Whether threats have been made against a group.
- A pattern of attacks, within or outside the United States, against a group.
- The symbolic value of a cultural or historical institution that would make it a possible terrorist target.
- The role of a nonprofit organization in responding to terrorism.
- Previously conducted threat assessments.
"We really moved to a new thought process, a new way of operating, and a new level of security after 9/11," said Harold S. Goldman, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. As a result of the new grants for nonprofits, "we will be able to make further capital improvements that will help to make our offices and our community even more secure."