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U.S. bill could protect shuls

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WASHINGTON, Oct. 12 (JTA) — American Jewish institutions are expected to seek funds from a new pot of money to be allocated to secure nonprofit institutions. Congress passed $25 million for the security of high-risk nonprofits on Monday as part of the Homeland Security Appropriations Act. The bill, which President Bush is expected to sign in a matter of days, gives Jewish groups, and other nongovernmental terrorist targets, an avenue to protect themselves. The provision was passed without the safeguards some Jewish groups wanted, which would have ensured that houses of worship would not receive money directly from the government. But federal aid likely will be a welcome relief to many Jewish organizations and institutions that have faced staggering security costs as terrorism fears have risen in recent years. Groups have had to shift money intended for other purposes in order to pay for the security enhancements, and have been wondering whether the government could help pay the bill. While several Jewish groups that lobbied heavily for the provision hoped to get as much as $100 million allocated to nonprofits, proponents nevertheless see the $25 million as a step in the right direction. “This money will enable a lot of nonprofit institutions to put up concrete barriers and bulletproof doors to really enhance their security,” said Charles Konigsberg, vice president for public policy at the United Jewish Communities. Although the appropriation passed, the authorization bill — which would have set out the structure for who could receive the money — is still lingering in Congress and likely will not be voted on this year. Many of the safeguards Jewish groups sought in order to ensure the separation of church and state will, therefore, not be law by the time money is doled out. Instead, the Department of Homeland Security will determine who is eligible for the funds. The Bush administration has shown a willingness to give federal dollars to religious groups as part of its faith-based initiatives, and is likely to support direct money to houses of worship to meet security needs. If Bush wins the White House next month, the rule-making process determining who will receive the money will be crucial to ensure that safeguards are put in place, several Jewish officials said, adding that they expected the Homeland Security Department to appoint someone to serve as a liaison between it and the nonprofit groups. “When we meet with the department, we will recommend regulations that will ensure funds can only be used for the protection of terrorist attacks,” Konigsberg said. Already, the Reform movement is advising its congregations to not seek the federal dollars. “We will encourage our congregations to not accept the money,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. “Our guidance would be that this is a program that will not help any congregation in terms of gaining security, but will significantly erode church-state separation and the platform of religious autonomy.” Several Jewish groups that signed on to the bill agreed that contractors coordinating security upgrades would serve as intermediaries with houses of worship, so direct money would not flow from the government to synagogues. Other groups wanted houses of worship excluded from the legislation altogether, but lost in the end. “It does set a precedent,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “It is a legitimate need, but there are a lot of legitimate needs that violate the Constitution.” Jewish organizations are also eligible for Homeland Security money that is being given to states. Already, Jewish institutions in Maryland, including synagogues, have received some money from the state for their security needs. But the new pot of money means Jewish groups will not have to directly compete for security aid with fire departments and other local first responders. Instead, they will be trying to seek the same money as hospitals, mosques and other sites that could be “soft targets” for terrorist attacks. UJC led a coalition of nonprofit groups that supported the provision. Also included were the Orthodox Union, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress. The earmark was the only new domestic-preparedness program to be added to the Homeland Security bill. UJC is planning to aid Jewish communities in their attempts to gain federal dollars. The group was successful last year in helping Jewish federations lobby for money for naturally occurring retirement communities, which provide money for assistance for communities with aging populations. One official, who serves on the security committee of a Washington-area synagogue, said he expects many shuls to be amenable to accepting federal funds to protect them from terrorist attack. “Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to be difficult to demonstrate the need,” he said. Jewish groups are hoping the measure will become permanent, and will continue to lobby for the High-Risk Nonprofit Security Enhancement Act, a free-standing piece of legislation that would earmark $50 million each year for nonprofit groups. The bill, which has the safeguards some Jewish groups sought, is not expected to get a vote this year. In addition, Jewish groups are being urged to work with state and local officials. A June ruling from the Department of Homeland Security allowed Jewish and other nonprofit sites to receive federal aid from the $2 billion earmarked from the Office of Domestic Preparedness to states and municipalities for their homeland security needs.

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