Jonathan Bundt, a member of the security team at Beth El Synagogue, has spent weeks assisting with a grant application to protect his religious home — a grant application to the Department of Homeland Security.
The coveted grants, totaling a record $60 million this year, are designed to help prevent tragedies such as the recent shooting in a San Diego synagogue. But most religious leaders don’t know about them, or that Minnesota offers similar, smaller grants.
The money can be used to tighten building security with cameras, lights and other equipment, as well as train staff. The problem is, such improvements come with a price tag, and many religious groups don’t have the cash, said Bundt. That’s why the grants are so needed.
“We’re working overtime to keep people safe,” said Bundt. “We can’t put our guard down — ever.”
The growing grant program reflects the recognition that houses of worship, in particular for religious and racial minorities, increasingly are targets of hate crimes and domestic terrorism. With predictable schedules and trusting worshipers, they are vulnerable to attacks.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom asked his state Legislature to boost funding for religious security grants in response to the San Diego shooting.
Synagogues such as Beth El in St. Louis Park and Temple Israel in Minneapolis are among Minnesota religious institutions that also support increased funding. They’re among the local beneficiaries of the Nonprofit Security Grant Program to date, adding tighter entrance security and outdoor cameras, respectively.
“The reality is, there is a rise in hate crimes,” said Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel. “Homeland Security has an important role in [combating] this, including training people and providing resources for security.”
A report issued by the Anti-Defamation League last week found 1,879 incidents of anti-Semitism last year. It was the third highest number since the league began tracking incidents four decades ago. That includes 28 incidents in Minnesota. It also found the number of Jewish people assaulted jumped from 21 to 59 over the past year.
As hate crimes have risen, so has funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program. Its annual budget has soared from an average of $17 million a year since the program’s launch in 2005 to a record $60 million this year. Grants have totaled nearly $264 million over the years.
Four Minnesota places of worship were awarded grants in 2018, averaging $105,000 each, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, which oversees the program for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA has prioritized designated metro areas such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles considered to be at greater risk of domestic terror.
For 2019, the grant program added an extra $10 million for religious groups outside of large urban areas.
The need in Minnesota has outpaced funds available, faith leaders have argued before the Legislature. Lawmakers listened. It created a state religious grant program with $150,000 in 2017 to supplement the federal grants. A House spending bill approved last week earmarks $500,000 for the biennium. A Senate omnibus spending bill set aside $300,000.
“I remember after the last attack, going to synagogue and just feeling vulnerable,” said Rep. Heather Edelson, DFL-Edina, the grant’s chief sponsor in the House.
“Being a member of a religion that is not a majority is a scary thing right now,” she said. “There’s a lot of hate in our country. When you go to your place of worship, you ought to feel safe.”
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, was the chief sponsor in the Senate.
“We know that there are threats focused on houses of worship,” Limmer said. “We’re trying to get ahead of that, anticipate that, and help them cope with it the best way they can.”
Spreading the word
The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Minnesota and the Dakotas has been a leader in educating state religious organizations of all faiths about building security. In the process, it also encourages groups to apply for grants to help pay the bills. Just last week, council staff met with a group of religious leaders in Minneapolis to share best practices in keeping their building safe and for a primer on how to apply for the grants.
“We’re not looking for the government to solve all our problems,” the JCRC’s Ethan Roberts said after the meeting. “A lot can be done with training and volunteers. But there’s no such thing as a volunteer security camera.”
Religious groups apply for the Nonprofit Security Grant through the Minnesota Department of Safety. The state reviews the grant proposals and forwards them to FEMA, which makes the final decisions. Religious groups that don’t make the FEMA cut but are ranked high then can be eligible for the Minnesota security grants.
Even if religious groups land grants, the exercise of applying for the grant is helpful because it requires a professional security evaluation of the building, said JCRC leaders.
Security was evident last week at the Holocaust memorial service at Bet Shalom Congregation in Minnetonka. A police car was parked near the synagogue, bags were inspected at the front door, and security officers were stationed around the building.
“We look around and make sure we’ve done everything we can do,” said Rabbi David Locketz.
Bundt didn’t share exactly what Beth El was requesting in its federal grant application, which is due this week. He acknowledged the grants were highly competitive and that many deserving projects never get funded. But keeping places of worship free of violence should be a national priority, he said.
“Freedom of worship is a core principle on which this country was founded,” said Bundt. “If people can’t go to houses of worship, it will break the fiber of this country.”