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As Terror Fears Rise, Ujc Idea Could Help Garner Homeland Security Funds

March 31, 2004
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With Jewish organizations divided over the use of federal homeland security funds to protect Jewish sites, supporters believe they have found a way to assuage concerns over church-state separation.

The United Jewish Communities, which is spearheading the effort to garner federal funds for high-risk non-profit organizations, is touting a plan to give the federal dollars directly to contractors, who would perform security upgrades at Jewish and other vulnerable sites.

“By having the flow of money go from the federal government to the contractor, there no longer will be church-state concerns,” said Charles Konigsberg, vice president for public policy at UJC, the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations.

But some Jewish groups concerned that the program may trample on church-state separation aren’t supporting UJC’s efforts.

“It’s a gimmick to avoid the issue,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “It’s still going to be synagogues, churches and mosques asking for money.”

On Thursday, lawmakers were expected to introduce bills in both houses of Congress authorizing $100 million to upgrade security at high-risk, non-profit institutions. The legislation is expected to have bipartisan support, though it’s unclear whether there is enough money for the proposal in the national budget.

Under the plan, non-profit sites would seek qualification from their states’ homeland security departments. Each state then would submit a prioritized list of sites to the Department of Homeland Security.

The federal government would decide which sites to fund and would enter into contracts with security firms that would administer the work.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who is sponsoring the bill in the U.S. House of Representatives with Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.), said he would not have supported direct federal aid to religious institutions but feels the suggested mechanism is acceptable.

“It’s exactly equivalent to what we do in getting a cop outside a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur,” Nadler said.

The bill, to be sponsored in the Senate by Sens. Arlen Spector (R-Penn.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), would provide some of the $1 billion that sponsors estimate is needed to secure non-profit institutions.

After last year’s bombings of synagogues in Istanbul and Casablanca, Nadler said, he believes the government has an obligation to help secure U.S. sites that are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Konigsberg said he believes the new system would expedite the process because money would be given directly to those performing the work.

However, some lawmakers remain concerned that using contractors would make the process more bureaucratic — and that issue may put a hitch into UJC’s plans to roll-out the program this week.

Some groups also argue that the use by synagogues or day schools of federal funds, even if they come through a middle man, violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

Jewish groups have been discussing the issue with the UJC for months, and several organizations were pushing for the community to promote loan guarantees for Jewish sites rather than direct aid. Indeed, the proposed bill includes loan guarantees as an alternative to federal funding. That would allow Jewish sites to pay for the improvements themselves, but over time and at a more affordable rate.

However, UJC believes its approach is more in keeping with the needs of its member federations, which face rising security costs because of increased fears of terrorism and the perception of rising anti-Semitism worldwide.

UJC has garnered support from the American Jewish Congress, Orthodox Union and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Outside the Jewish community, the legislation is backed by, among others, the American Red Cross, YMCA of the USA and the American Hospital Association.

The American Jewish Committee, Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and Jewish Council for Public Affairs still are reviewing the suggested provisions.

“While we certainly appreciate the new realities this legislation seeks to address, we continue to have concerns about its application to houses of worship and other pervasively sectarian institutions,” said Mark Pelavin, the RAC’s associate director. “We are working closely with the bill’s sponsors, and our leadership is in the process of reviewing the most recent draft of the legislation.”

Even Jewish groups that are not inclined to support the legislation aren’t expected to oppose it actively because of the community’s pressing security needs.

“We will continue to raise the concerns,” Foxman said. “Will I be testifying against it? Probably not.”

Jewish opponents of the plan also worry that the legislation could pit Jewish communities against each other for federal aid, questioning whether synagogues in smaller cities would get as much attention as those in places like New York or Chicago.

In recent years, federal disaster aid and historical-preservation money have gone to all classes of Jewish institutions, though there is debate about whether Jewish institutions should accept such funds.

The Bush administration has pushed faith-based initiatives and other initiatives 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 have been ambivalent.

Some Jewish groups have complained that UJC has rushed the effort without allowing enough discussion in the Jewish community on the legislation’s ramifications. Sources said UJC wanted to have the legislation introduced before it brings its leadership to Capitol Hill to lobby in April.

Konigsberg, however, says a more important factor in the timing was Congress’ appropriations process.

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