A week after a man killed a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in 2009, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano cited the murder as proof that nonprofit institutions were at risk of attack and could be helped by federal security grants.
In an event announcing $1.7 billion in Department of Homeland Security grants, Napolitano noted that 63 percent of nonprofit grant recipients were “affiliated with Jewish organizations.”
The following year, according to the Jewish Federations of North America, that number grew. In 2010, 94 percent of the department’s nonprofit security funding went to Jewish groups that are, in the words of the Department of Homeland Security, “at high risk of terrorist attack.” That included $222,000 for Jewish nonprofits in Missouri.
Last month, the Nonprofit Security Grant Program awarded three St. Louis Jewish organizations $195,000 in grants to guard against such an attack, according to the Missouri Department of Public Safety. They were the only nonprofits in St. Louis to receive funding from the program, which awarded more than 80 percent of its $20 million budget in 2011 to Jewish nonprofits around the country.
Government grants to nonprofits are common. But the strong religious connection in this federal grant program has stirred debate, even within Jewish organizations.
The grant program “presents serious concerns around the constitutional separation of church and state,” said Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for Missouri and Southern Illinois.
The Department of Homeland Security has awarded $119 million in grants to nonprofit groups since the program began in 2005. The grants are available to any nonprofit that can prove to federal security officials that it “or closely related organizations (within or outside the U.S.)” was the victim of a prior threat or attack “by a terrorist organization, network, or cell,” according to the grant application
From Boston to San Diego, synagogues, community centers, schools, office buildings and elder-care centers have used the grants of up to $75,000, for surveillance cameras, digital video recorders, vehicle barriers, lighting, perimeter fencing, bulletproof windows and identification systems, among other improvements.
David Winton, a lobbyist for the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, said the bar for grantees “is not just to improve our lighting. The bar is that these are potential targets for terrorists.”
Since 2008, when Missouri nonprofits first began receiving the grants, all but one of the awards — to Mercy Hospital St. Louis — have gone to Jewish organizations.
Mercy used its grant for equipment that will give police remote, real-time access to the hospital’s video surveillance system, allowing them to quickly monitor Mercy’s campus in case it is attacked by an armed intruder.
Of the $564,000 total funding for Missouri organizations from the Department of Homeland Security program since 2008, 87 percent has gone to Jewish institutions in St. Louis and Kansas City.
Less than 10 percent of St. Louis’ Jewish population of 60,000 is Orthodox, but 74 percent of the grants awarded in St. Louis have gone to Orthodox groups. Leaders of the Reform movement, the largest stream of Judaism in the United States, with 1.5 million members, have discouraged its congregations from applying or accepting the grants.
Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Washington office, said there’s a difference between the government awarding grants to Catholic hospitals or Jewish elder-care facilities that have a wider social mission, and grants that go to institutions where the mission is explicitly religious.
“These grants — which are for, in effect, capital expenses for houses of worship — are ill-advised,” Pelavin said.
The federal program was designed to make it easier for religious nonprofits to secure funding. Each application is scored by state and federal security officials. Scores are tripled for nonprofits with religious affiliation; scores for medical or educational institutions are doubled, according to the application guidelines.
The Department of Homeland Security declined to provide someone for the Post-Dispatch to interview, and a department spokesman said he could not answer any questions in a list emailed to him. But Jewish Federation officials say there is nothing wrong with the government subsidizing religious organizations at risk.
“It’s completely appropriate to partner with government on these projects,” said Winton. “When the Jewish community is not safe, the broader community is not safe.”
The leaders of the St. Louis Jewish nonprofits that received the funding this year wouldn’t discuss the grants, but those who defend the awards say recent history, such as the attack at the Holocaust Museum, proves that Jewish organizations are at greater risk of violence.
“Based on the history of threats, and the symbolic nature of these institutions, there’s no question that Jewish institutions are considered high-value targets for terrorists,” said Robert Goldberg, senior legislative director for The Jewish Federations of North America, an umbrella group of 157 Jewish federations.
Goldberg, who had a significant role in creating the nonprofit legislation in 2004, said the program is ‘secular, not sectarian.”
Barry Rosenberg, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, which helps guide Jewish nonprofits through the security grant application process, said local Jewish institutions are at greater risk of attack than other nonprofits.
“More than a Christian group? Yes. More at risk than a VFW? Yes. A public school? Yes,” he said. “The evidence is very clear.”
More areas added
The Federal Emergency Management Agency initially allocated the nonprofit grants mostly in coastal cities. But Missouri legislators worked with St. Louis Jewish groups and their lobbyists to ask FEMA to declare the state’s Jewish nonprofits at risk of terrorist attacks so they could qualify for the funding.
The original regulations omitted the vast majority of the country, said Winton. “And yet one of the worst terror attacks we’ve ever had was in Oklahoma City.”
Eventually, the government designated two tiers of “high risk” geographical areas. Tier I included large urban centers like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington. Tier II cities, added after lobbyists like Winton pleaded for fairness in Washington, included cities like St. Louis, Phoenix, Denver, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
The geographic makeup of the government’s “high risk” map changes each year. In 2011, FEMA designated 31 cities “high risk.” Tier I cities received 77 percent of the $663 million in Urban Area Security Initiative funding, which include the nonprofit grants. The rest — $122 million — was distributed to 20 Tier II cities.
“The notion that it has to be Brooklyn, New York, that’s at risk is old thinking,” Rosenberg said.
U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, played a pivotal role, according to Winton, in helping to persuade his fellow lawmakers to expand the pool of potential grant recipients to the Midwest. Carnahan called the $407,000 in federal grants to the St. Louis Jewish nonprofits since 2008 “a local success story.”
The rabbis leading the three St. Louis institutions that received funding this year — Bais Abraham Congregation in University City, Chabad on Campus at Washington University and Taharath Israel of St. Louis, which maintains two ritual baths, called mikvehs, in Creve Coeur and University City — declined to discuss their grants, citing security concerns.
TERROR OR HATE?
Exactly what Homeland Security is keeping the Jewish community safe from is also part of the debate. At issue is the difference between a hate crime and terrorism.
The nonprofit program was originally supposed to support organizations “that are at high risk of international terrorist attack,” according to Homeland Security documents. In 2008, the word “international” was removed from the eligibility requirements.
Those in the Jewish community who support the nonprofit program point to horrific instances of attacks, and foiled attacks, on U.S. Jewish institutions.
In 1999, a man walked into a Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles and opened fire, wounding five people, including three children. In 2006, a man who said he was upset about “what was going on in Israel” shot six women, one fatally, at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. In 2009, police arrested four New York men who plotted to bomb a Jewish center and two synagogues in the Bronx.
Jewish groups wrote the original legislation to add nonprofits to the Department of Homeland Security grant program in response to warnings from the FBI in 2002, less than a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, that al-Qaida operatives planned to drive bomb-laden fuel tanker trucks into buildings housing Jewish institutions.
But it’s unclear whether those attacks were hate crimes or terrorism.
Rosenberg, of the St. Louis Jewish Federation, said while he understands the difference between the two, “the nature of terror is that it drives all kinds of people all over the world.”
“If you dig into the motivations of the attack at the Seattle federation, it was about anger at the people of Israel over the treatment of Arabs,” Rosenberg said. “That’s different than a hate crime. It’s different than a right-wing militia. It has a strong political tinge.”
The debate about which, if any, religious groups should receive federal grants to guard against terrorism or hate crimes could soon be moot, experts say. If there’s a great equalizer in the world of government grants, it’s the stumbling economy, and St. Louis’ nonprofits may have received their last grants from the Department of Homeland Security.
In 2010, 64 cities were included on the government’s list of eligible grant recipients. In 2011, that number dropped to 31, and Kansas City was left off the list. Next year, all of Missouri could be turned away.
“It’s very likely St. Louis will not be on the list for any funding,” said Steve Davis, president of All Hands Consulting, a global emergency management firm in Maryland that has managed Miami’s federal security grants.
In 2012, he said, “probably only 10 or 11 cities will receive nonprofit funds. After that, there’s a good chance (the program) won’t survive.”