Thirty-one nonprofit organizations in the Washington area, including 14 synagogues and eight hospitals, have received federal grants ranging from $26,000 to $100,000 to fortify their facilities under an anti-terrorism program that has divided Jewish leaders and drawn criticism from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The grants are part of a $25 million nationwide program that Congress approved last year and recently renewed for fiscal 2006 to protect nonprofit groups deemed highly vulnerable to a terrorist attack.
The Jewish community has long been security conscious because of terrorist attacks abroad on synagogues and Jewish centers, and that explains why a large number of Jewish organizations applied for the grants and received them, said Ronald Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
United Jewish Communities, which represents more than 550 Jewish organizations in North America, took credit in a news release last week for lobbying Congress to set up and renew the program.
But the executive board of the Union for Reform Judaism advised Reform temples not to apply for the funds. In a memo to member congregations, Reform leaders called the security grants "a serious violation of church-state separation" and said the $25 million "could have been better used beefing up first responders and police protection in high-risk areas."
A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said that the program is unnecessary and that the department tried unsuccessfully to have the money taken out of its 2006 budget. State and city officials already had the authority to award their federal homeland security money to nonprofit groups, including religious ones, and creation of the fund forced officials to set up a new disbursement system, said department spokesman Marc Short.
"There's nothing that would restrict a city from allocating funds to a church or synagogue that faces a grave danger or risk," Short said. "We have always said we have felt this was redundant and unnecessary."
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) sponsored the legislation creating the program, said the federal funds protect "hospitals, schools, community centers, synagogues and churches from terrorist violence."
"I will keep fighting to protect institutions that are vital to our communities and the physical, social, spiritual and educational well-being of all Americans," Mikulski said in a statement issued yesterday.
The $25 million for 2005 was disbursed to 18 metropolitan areas considered most at risk of terrorist attack. Because state and local officials made the awards, the federal agency does not yet have a list of recipients nationwide.
The Washington area was given $4.5 million and has distributed $2.7 million, with the money being administered by the D.C. deputy mayor for public safety. All 31 applicants succeeded in obtaining grants.
In addition to the 14 synagogues, the recipients included two Jewish schools and five other Jewish organizations, among them the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington and Hillel, a student group. Among the eight hospitals getting money were Georgetown University Hospital, Inova Loudoun Hospital, Montgomery General Hospital and Prince William Hospital. The American National Red Cross and the Capital Area Food Bank also received funds.
The Baltimore region received about $130,000, but Maryland officials also made some of their other federal homeland security money available. About $1.26 million has been given to 47 organizations, of which 43 are Jewish, including 26 congregations. The only non-Jewish congregation to receive money was the Islamic Society of Baltimore.
In Boston, seven of the 25 grant recipients were Jewish organizations. The others included 12 hospitals, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the local YMCA.
Officials in Chicago, who gave out $2.7 million to 33 nonprofit groups, and New York, who awarded $6.3 million to 112 groups, declined to identify their grant recipients, saying that doing so could jeopardize the organizations' security.
Under regulations issued by the Homeland Security Department, the money must be used for "target hardening," such as installing concrete barriers, surveillance cameras and blastproof doors.
The guidelines on eligibility for the grants say consideration should be given to organizations that have been the target of threats or previous attacks by terrorist groups inside or outside the United States; are at historically or culturally important sites; would have a role in responding to terrorist attacks; and have an "overall religious or service operations philosophy that could cause it to be a potential target."
Alicia Love, campaign and major gift director of the Capital Area Food Bank, said her organization qualified because it would be called on to supply food if a disaster occurred. She said it will use its $100,000 grant for camera surveillance to protect its food reserves from tampering.
Halber, of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said it was not hard for Jewish nonprofit groups to demonstrate that they fit the grant criteria. "Unfortunately, you only have to read the newspaper," he said, adding that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sometimes spreads beyond the Middle East and that Jewish facilities in Europe "are being preyed upon" by anti-Semitic forces.
Zvi Schoenburg, head of Gesher Jewish Day School of Northern Virginia, which received $100,000, said: "When the criteria were set up for these grants, it certainly looked like something we would be eligible for. And as taxpayers, we wanted to believe that our safety and security is paramount in the eyes of the greater community. . . . If, God forbid, terrorists struck at a Jewish school, I think that would be of concern to all citizens in the metropolitan area."
But Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform branch of Judaism's Religious Action Center, said he feared that Jewish congregations' acceptance of government funding "in the long run would be bad for religious freedom."
It also weakens arguments long made by Jewish leaders against government funding for religion-based charities and church-run schools, he said.
Mark Waldman, director of public policy for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, disagreed.
He said his branch of Judaism believes that it is appropriate to accept the grants because "the maintaining of security is a government responsibility, and the grants are available to all [nonprofits]. Therefore, it is not a church-state problem because they're not saying it's just for churches or synagogues. It could be for museums."