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Jewish Groups Hope They Can Keep Homeland Security Money Flowing

June 29, 2006
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Jewish groups gratefully absorbed more than half of the homeland security funds last year aimed at protecting nonprofits — and they’re campaigning to make sure the money keeps flowing. An array of Jewish groups nationwide is just now beginning to spend the $14 million of the $25 million mandated by Congress in 2005 to secure at-risk nonprofit groups. Another $25 million mandated in the 2006 budget is mired in intergovernmental infighting.

The United Jewish Communities, the umbrella body of the North American Jewish federation system, is lobbying to make sure the $25 million allocation survives in the Homeland Security Department’s 2007 budget, due to be referred this week to the full Senate.

“We believe there is a critical threat against Jewish community assets in the United States,” William Daroff, the UJC’s vice president for public policy and its top Washington lobbyist, told JTA. “It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see that Jewish institutions are near the top of the terrorists’ list.”

The senators who sponsored the original legislation, Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), are scrambling to make sure the money survives the mark-up this week from the Appropriations Committee to the full Senate.

“We must help protect our hospitals, schools, community centers, synagogues and churches from terrorist violence,” Mikulski said in a statement to JTA. “This is a federal investment in added security to help protect organizations at risk of terrorist attacks.”

Senators are believed to generally favor the legislation, but are susceptible to lobbying by a White House that strongly favors retaining executive power in decisions such as where to spend homeland security money.

The $14 million that Jewish groups received in the 2005 budget reached 18 communities: Atlanta; Baltimore; Broward County, Fla.; Boston; Chicago; Dallas, the Washington metropolitan area; Houston; Los Angeles; Long Beach, Calif.; Metrowest, N.J.; Miami; New York; Philadelphia; Portland, Ore.; San Diego; San Francisco; and Seattle.

No organization could apply for more than $100,000, though some federations received more because they housed multiple applicants on the same campus. Most states bar the listing of individual groups for security reasons, but it’s known that New York’s Jewish community was by far the leader in receiving funds, getting about $4.5 million of $6.3 million allocated to nonprofits in the city.

The funds are an unqualified boon, Jewish leaders agree.

“It was a terrific process. It’s going to mean a lot to these programs,” said Ron Soloway, managing director of government and external relations for UJA-Federation of New York. “Even to this day, we have parents who worry about the safety of institutions” accommodating their children in pre-school, day care or school.

It has taken until now to sign the contracts for the services because of the need to ensure that contractors meet Homeland Security Department standards. The grants are limited to “target hardening,” or physical and material protections. Applications for programs or salaried employees are not considered.

Jewish organizations asked for barriers, reinforced doors, blast-proof windows, security cameras, gates and fencing.

Jewish day schools in the Chicago area, for example, installed a film on windows to prevent shattering in case of a bomb blast.

“Glass shattering is a major cause of injury and death and serious injury, especially for kids,” said Joel Carp, senior vice president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

The original guidelines for applicants, written when Tom Ridge was department secretary, seem tailored for Jewish groups. Criteria included nonprofits that were likely to be targeted by State Department-designated terrorist groups.

“Prior attacks within or outside the United States by international terrorist organizations against the nonprofit organizations or entities associated with or similarly situated as the nonprofit” would qualify a group for the grant.

According to those criteria, all a Jewish organization had to do — and many did, according to Jewish officials — was cite the devastating bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994, widely believed to have been carried out by Hezbollah, a designated terrorist group.

It’s not clear whether those criteria will apply to the 2007 allocation if it survives this week’s budget process. Jewish officials say a disagreement between Congress and the Bush administration has dogged the disbursement of the $25 million for 2006. Congress wants local involvement in deciding which nonprofits get the money, and wants the Homeland Security Department to consider potential threats as well as known threats.

Jewish groups say it makes sense to keep the decision making local because the federations have close relations with municipal and state decision-makers.

“We work very well with state agencies,” Carp said.

Some 23 Chicago-area Jewish groups, including four synagogues, received about half of the $3 million allocated to the city.

According to Jewish and congressional officials, Homeland Security jealously guards its discretion in how the money is spent and wants to focus on known threats from groups like Al-Qaida, rather than on groups that might only theoretically be targeted.

That approach is short-sighted in an age when “freelance” terrorists are popping up everywhere, said one Jewish official involved in requesting funds. The official cited a message found scrawled this week in the hold of a ship importing Guatemalan bananas into California that read, “This nitro is for you Mr. George W. Bush and your Jewish cronies.”

The origin of the threat, which is still under investigation, is unknown; the potential target might not appear on a list of groups known to be targeted by established terrorists.

“The problem is getting the department to shift its thinking away from known threats and to potential threats,” the official said.

Spokesmen for the Homeland Security Department did not return calls seeking comment.

Another factor in the concern over whether the money continues to flow is perceived government bias against nonprofits. Homeland Security initially sought to protect private interests and government targets.

Nonprofit officials say their crucial role in stemming the devastation of last year’s hurricane season, at times in place of a floundering government, has proved the value of protecting nonprofits. Jewish officials cite Jewish hospitals and mental health clinics that deal with post-traumatic stress as examples of nonprofits deserving protection.

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