Security has become the number-one issue on the minds of American Jews due to an increase in anti-Semitic attacks. Recent acts of violence in places like shuls and kosher markets have engendered a very clear demand from the Jewish community and its representatives: Jewish institutions need more security. And for that security to be adequate and complete, it will require government funding.
The fight for government funding for increased security at clearly Jewish institutions has been going on for some time, and there have been numerous victories along the way. Maury Litwack, the founder and executive director of the Teach Coalition, a division of the Orthodox Union, has been involved in that fight for years. His organization lobbies for funding, helps facilitate grassroots support (like organizing rallies in Albany) and assists Jewish organizations in applying for, and maintaining, that funding—literally helping them fill out all of the necessary forms.
To a certain degree, security funding for shuls and yeshivos, which covers things like security cameras and secure doors, has been in place at the federal level since a few years after 9/11. But as Mr. Litwack described, state funding for security truly first took off in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.
“After that,” Mr. Litwack said, “state legislators were looking at how to protect public schools. We came in, and in 2013 and 2014, we and our community partners started working very, very hard to try to make the argument to state legislatures that if they were going to pass legislation protecting public schools, then non-public schools—whether that was a yeshivah or a Catholic school—deserved the security protection equally. At the time, parents were literally flocking to the doors of yeshivos and calling administrators and menahalim of their schools and basically saying that they were scared or nervous about school shootings.”
In 2013 and 2014, two major legislative changes occurred.
“One,” Mr. Litwack explained, “was that Pennsylvania passed the first ever security guard funding program, which was a grant program to pay for security guards in non-public schools like yeshivos. It was really historic at the time because no state had ever passed legislation, such as a grant program, to pay for guards for yeshivah kids.
“That same year, New York State created a $4.5 million program, championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, that provided security funding for non-public schools. At the time, it only provided about $9.70 per kid in funding, but in these two states, it was gigantic because it was the first time ever that states were allocating these funds to protect yeshivah students.”
This kind of funding was very important, but both programs were grant programs, with a limited amount of money available for the institutions that applied; a number of schools in Pennsylvania were turned down. Then came 2015 and 2016, when David Greenfield, then a New York City councilman, passed legislation for security guards at every private school in the city with 300 students or more.
“When that happened, it was such a big and transformative message,” Mr. Litwack said. “Around the country, it was the first time that yeshivos and other non-public schools were entitled to a [government-funded] guard. The Pennsylvania program hadn’t said that these schools were entitled, only that they were eligible. So the Pennsylvania and New York programs sort of opened the door, and then New York City, and David Greenfield, really blew it open and said, ‘Look, every single yeshivah kid and every single nonpublic school kid is entitled to a guard.’ This was an interfaith coalition; every single non-public school was on board with this because they all need these protections.
“That year, New Jersey also started to provide money for yeshivah kids. They created a program that allowed for about $25 per kid in security funding. So in 2015-2016, non-public school kids were finally being recognized as needing protection. New York City was really instrumental in opening up that conversation around the country.”
Then, in 2017, came the thousands of bomb threats made against hundreds of Jewish schools and community centers across the country.
“At that point, states started to really get in gear to figure out how to provide money, not just for the yeshivos but also for other institutions, such as shuls or nonprofits. In that year, Governor Cuomo, for example, created a $25 million security grant program, and it was eligible for community centers and non-public schools, and it greatly expanded the definition of who was eligible for a security grant.
“By 2017, New Jersey had also raised its non-public school funding program to $75 per child, and they added a program to provide security guards to nonprofits and shuls. Maryland and California created similar security guard programs. Florida created, for the first time, a security guard program just for non-public school kids, including yeshivah kids. So 2017 was a gigantic year for security funding, not just for yeshivos but for everyone.”
In New York, there remained—and still remains—a constitutional problem, according to some, with providing security to shuls. Mr. Litwack says that his organization disagrees with that interpretation. Florida has never extended security to shuls either. But that kind of security funding by states did start becoming available elsewhere.
Part of the fight this year has been to include summer camps in the security programs in New York. That effort was led, Mr. Litwack said, by Bobov and its representative, Yoeli Rosenfeld. Under the legislation that was introduced by Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, overnight residential camps are eligible for that grant.
“The grant,” Mr. Litwack explained, “administered by the state division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, will provide up to $50,000 in funding for security training needs, cameras, state-of-the-art technology, door-hardening, improved lighting, and other related security upgrades at each eligible facility. Organizations that operate more than one facility may submit up to five applications for a total request of up to $250,000.”
Last year also saw an increase in funding in New Jersey, up to $150 per child. That was due to the efforts of Gary Schaer, an assemblyman from Passaic.
The Teach Coalition, in partnership with the OU’s Synagogue Services Division, has helped throughout, not just by lobbying but also by helping schools, shuls and other organizations apply for the funding and by providing the necessary paperwork to the federal, state and local governments.
Mr. Litwack said that the groundwork that has been laid for state funding may be about to reap even larger benefits for the Jewish community.
“Everything that’s happening over the last six years has been incredibly important, and there have been pioneers who made that possible, including elected officials like Governor Andrew Cuomo, David Greenfield, Gary Schaer and Simcha Eichenstein. But now people are building on all the work of the last six years, and they’re calling for bigger, bolder proposals to direct state dollars toward protecting our yeshivos, camps, and shuls—more than I’ve ever seen in doing this work.
“The fight this year in New Jersey,” Mr. Litwack continued, “is to see if we can get that [funding] to $250 per kid. But in addition to that, Senator Schumer now has a proposal to take the federal security funding, nationally, from $90 million to $340 million. And there are proposals in New York State to increase the funding significantly, as well as to include houses of worship and shuls.”
Furthermore, city councilmen Chaim Deutsch and Kalman Yeger are pushing for funding from New York City to be extended to schools with a hundred or more children.
“Everything that happened up until this point is amazing—kol hakavod to all the activists and the legislators who are involved in this—but at the end of the day, when you speak to the average institution in our community, they are saying that they need more money. In recent months, we’ve received hundreds of calls from yeshivos, camps and shuls, asking us to help them apply for grants. We had a webinar about two weeks ago that literally broke our webinar system because so many people called in for it. We have people who are calling up activists, asking how they can get involved. We’re telling them that a fundamental role they can play is to communicate with their elected officials on the local and state levels to push and advocate for more funding.”
Litwack said that there are two types of elected officials. “[There are] those who have been fighting and passing more and more security funding the past few years—whether that’s to protect all schools during a national rise in school shootings or to increase security protections for nonprofits after the spate of bomb threats or last year’s tragedies in Poway and Pittsburgh—and then there are those politicians who have chosen to issue a press release instead of taking concrete action.”
But he said that the most recent attacks on Jews have swayed even the second type.
“Now we are hearing from all of these politicians, and we believe that they all recognize that the climate is different and that even greater security funding is required. But the extent of that will depend on the klal’s voice. Every single politician can do more.
“It is our responsibility as a community to educate all elected officials that it is the fundamental responsibility of government to protect the safety of all of its citizens. This responsibility must be effectuated with all resources necessary to accomplish this purpose.”
He said that pushing for funding also involves lobbying your local officials. For example, one of the two security programs in New York is a $20 million matching program.
“That program works by Governor Cuomo, in effect, saying to local municipalities, ‘I’ll match 3 to 1 when you’re going to provide security funding.’”
But some communities have not taken advantage of that, Mr. Litwack said.
“If you live in Long Island, say, in the Five Towns, you don’t receive any funding. Nassau County does not receive security funding like they do in New York City. You can go and speak to your representatives and say to them, ‘Here’s a program in New York State that’s matching what you put in. If you put in a million dollars, the state will put in $3 million, and now there would be a $4 million program for the Five Towns.’”
How much money do schools really need?
“This answer isn’t easy to come by,” he said. “Schools vary widely in their security needs based on size and location, school hours, the number of entrances, etc. Plus, the number changes from year to year and is based on their own security assessment and what infrastructure they have or don’t have in place.
“Before this interview, I informally asked half a dozen yeshivos this question, and the number ranged from $350 per child to as high as $550. That number may grow.
“Currently, schools in New Jersey get $150 per child. Schools in New York have a huge range depending on whether they take advantage of the New York City guards program or receive state grants. And schools in Florida receive approximately $135 to $185 for each kid.”
If someone notices that his children’s yeshivah doesn’t have a security guard, in a state that does provide funding for one, does that mean that the school was negligent?
“A parent shouldn’t assume a school is delinquent,” Mr. Litwack said. “Government funding requires many applications and compliance. It’s not a simple process, and those who run our yeshivos are incredibly overtaxed and overworked as it is. There is a host of good reasons not to have taken advantage of this program or other programs.
“What we always tell parents and schools is that we have resources to help, as do other organizations. You aren’t in this alone. Any institution can contact us, and we will help them navigate this process. Seventy-two hours after the attack in Monsey, we had over a hundred shuls, camps and schools asking about what grants were available. We helped each and every one understand the available programs, what we could do to help with grant navigation, and what we could do to help with the application.
“We are here to help. Resources have been built over the years to help [every institution from] the smallest shtiebel to the largest camp or yeshivah. Please reach out or send your institution our way.”
He said he believes that the community has to take action in two ways.
“One, of course, is tefillah. None of these programs would have passed without the thousands of prayers of volunteers and activists. We need that.
“And we need people who are going to make their voices heard and speak up to their local and state elected officials. Point to those other states, point to those other communities, point to the federal government, and say, ‘Here are programs that work. Here are programs for camps, here are programs for yeshivah kids, here are programs for shuls, here are things you can do.’ With that kind of mentality, with the federal government investing, with ten states investing in security dollars, no elected official should have an excuse to say they can’t provide more funding.
“There was over $100 million in security funding just on the state level in the last year, and even more if you include the federal funding. And it’s all really due to the hard work and prayers of thousands of volunteers, activists, yeshivos, camps, our community partners, parents, grandparents, and leadership from the OU. This is really a joint effort, a grassroots movement. This is people getting together over the last five, six years, saying, ‘We’re concerned about security here. We’re concerned about school shootings. We’re concerned about bomb threats. We’re concerned about rising anti-Semitism. And we’re going to do something about it.’
“People went to Albany. People went to Trenton. People went to Sacramento. These were volunteers, baalei batim, askanim. Everybody worked really, really hard on this. For us to take this to the next level and get the protection we need for each and every one of our communities, it can’t be just one moment in time. It has to be a movement of people who are passionate about this and really care about the protection of our community.” ●