Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced yesterday that Maryland will be the first state to spend a portion of its federal homeland security allotment safeguarding Jewish schools, saying the religious institutions present a soft target for terrorists.
"Unfortunately, this is a function of the era we live in," Ehrlich said after addressing high school students gathered in the gym at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville. "This is a very nontraditional war. Projects such as this will make us safer."
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Ehrlich (R) said the state will spend $100,000 on security measures at the school. Its sizable student body -- there are 1,500 students in kindergarten through 12th grade on two campuses in Rockville -- and proximity to Washington placed it high on his list of priorities, he said. School officials said the money would be spent on "external security" but would not elaborate.
"We are very grateful for the support," said Nancy Hamburger, president of the school's board of directors. "This is something that has parents concerned, and we need to make a special effort to make them feel comfortable that their children are safe."
The governor's decision came after aggressive lobbying from the school and local and national Jewish groups that have been urging Congress to allocate a special pool of homeland security money for nonprofit groups.
The U.S. Senate passed an appropriations bill this month that included $50 million in homeland security funding for nonprofits, but the funding was missing from the House version. The proposal is now before a conference committee.
Robyn G. Judelsohn, a spokeswoman for the United Jewish Committee, said the group has argued that the special allotment is needed because nonprofits have been unable to compete with fire and police agencies for the homeland security funds being distributed by state leaders.
"Maryland is the only exception that I'm aware of," she said.
One factor giving Maryland Jewish leaders an edge in obtaining the funds has been Ehrlich's visible efforts to court Jewish voters. His first overseas trip as governor was to Israel, and his schedule over the past two years has been loaded with appearances before Jewish groups.
While he has not been shy about his interest in forging strong ties with Baltimore and Washington area Jewish groups, Ehrlich rejected the idea that yesterday's funding announcement was part of a broader strategy for his reelection campaign.
"Anyone who makes that statement makes it out of ignorance," he said, responding to a reporter's question.
Ehrlich's aides said concerns about security for religious groups, including not only Jews but also Muslims, helped spur the initiative. They cited the 1999 shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center outside Los Angeles, in which three boys and two center workers were wounded, as an example of the threat. Last month, Ehrlich briefed Jewish leaders from Baltimore on homeland security issues, and pledged $97,900 in homeland security money to pay for bulletproof glass, security cameras and an alarm system at a Baltimore Jewish community center.
Ronald J. Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Council, said the Rockville organization has made security a priority since Sept. 11, 2001.
"I don't think it's politics," Halber said. "I think it's extraordinarily practical. Security has become the highest priority to the Jewish community."
Still, politics lurked at yesterday's event. While Ehrlich's marketing specialist helped orchestrate an event that would be appealing to television news cameras, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's top political aide watched from the back of the gymnasium.
Jerry Pasternak, who attended in his capacity as a member of the board of the Charles E. Smith school, noted that Ehrlich was not the first official in Maryland to direct public funds to security for Jewish institutions. Pasternak said Duncan (D) has approved more than $2.5 million in grants since 2001 to bulk up security at facilities run by Jewish groups, and has directed some homeland security money to a Catholic school for increased security. Duncan is weighing a run for governor in 2006.