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Should U.S. money secure synagogues?

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Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, opens the JCPA 2004 Plenum in Boston on Feb. 21. (David M. Baron/JCPA)

Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, opens the JCPA 2004 Plenum in Boston on Feb. 21. (David M. Baron/JCPA)

BOSTON, Feb. 24 (JTA) — It soon could be a conundrum for American Jews: Should communities allow government money into synagogues in order to keep terrorists out? Behind the scenes at this year’s Jewish Council for Public Affairs plenum, officials were debating how to reconcile steadfast support by some Jewish groups for strict separation between church and state with the growing need for money to ease soaring post-Sept. 11 security costs. Especially contentious is whether the money should go to synagogues and day schools. Those involved say there is an understanding that it would be best not to announce a policy until there is agreement on the issue, given historic divisions in the organized Jewish community over church-state separation. “We are working diligently to try and reach a consensus,” said Charles Konigsberg, vice president for public policy at the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for North American federations. UJC likely will look to the annual Homeland Security appropriations in Congress in the coming weeks for security assistance for non-profit organizations that are high-risk targets of terrorist attacks. It is unclear yet how much money UJC lobbyists will seek. U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), ranking minority member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, may be a key ally on this issue, insiders say. The project could put Jewish groups in partnership with hospitals, museums and the American Red Cross. Some have suggested that mosques may also get aid. According to several sources, Jewish organizations are in almost complete agreement that seeking loan guarantees from the federal government for the security costs would not violate their perception of church-state separation, because no direct federal aid would go to the organizations. However, some are specifically pushing for grants instead of or in addition to the guarantees, which would be one of the first instances in which a majority of Jewish groups supported federal aid for religious institutions. Some more liberal Jewish groups are not quite ready to make that leap. They either are pushing for the Jewish community to focus on the loan guarantees or to set up a two-tier system that would propose aid to federation buildings and other community service centers, and loan guarantees to religious institutions. “It’s a really, really close church-state question,” said one Jewish official involved in the discussions. “We’ve been so out there on church-state issues, but this is a different paradigm.” Others have countered that such a system would make synagogues and religious buildings second-class institutions. Federal disaster aid and historical-preservation money in recent years have gone to all classes of Jewish institutions, although there apparently still is debate among Jews about whether Jewish institutions should accept such funds. The Bush administration has heavily touted faith-based initiatives and other venues to allow religious groups to seek federal dollars. While the Orthodox community has embraced such proposals enthusiastically, most Jewish groups either have opposed them or been uncertain. Those Jewish leaders who oppose faith-based initiatives are worried that this exception could set a precedent. “The fact is, it is a change from historically where the community has been,” said one Jewish organization official who asked not be identified.“It will be much harder to resist funding going to purposes many of us would not support.” Speaking at a JCPA forum Monday, Rabbi David Saperstein, executive director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said the issue of federal aid for security was “on the cusp” of dicey issues of church-state separation. “You can look at this as direct government funding of houses of worship and parochial schools, something the Supreme Court has never upheld and which raises serious constitutional issues for separationists. On the other hand, it raises the issue of extraordinary circumstances in which the government is paying for things which would not have been required to be done by houses of worship if not for extraordinary circumstances,” he said. He said his own group had not yet formulated a position on the issue. Some Jewish groups believe that choosing the loan guarantees route would allow all Jewish organizations to save face. It may also be more achievable in Congress. Some argue that seeking money for security needs would be similar to calling on the services of the police or fire department. “This isn’t money that’s going to a church or synagogue, it’s going to bullet-proof glass,” a Jewish official said, noting that the need will be based purely on risk rather the religiosity of the institution. Even those who do not support seeking federal aid say they understand the rationale for the exemption from long-standing Jewish public policy. They are likely not to contest openly the majority’s decision. “There is not going to be a schism on this,” one Jewish leader said. “They will either support this or step back.”

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