Hate crimes fuel push for state security funds

  • Hundreds of people attended a service for Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, at the Chabad of Poway on April 28, 2019 in Poway, Calif. Gilbert-Kaye was killed by a gunman at the synagogue. THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE VIA TNS/K.C. Alfred

State House News Service
Published: 5/20/2019 4:39:00 PM

BOSTON – Amid a national trend of rising anti-Semitic assaults and near-record numbers of anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts, leaders in the Jewish faith find themselves trying to balance the traditional open and welcoming nature of synagogues and Jewish community centers with the safety and security of their congregants.

The number of hate crimes – including crimes motivated by race, religion, ethnicity and more – reported to the state increased by almost 10 percent to a 10-year high in 2017. Though the issue is not exclusive to any single religion, the Anti-Defamation League said last month that 2018 was “the second highest year for anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts on record,” with 2018 ranking second only to 2017.

“There is a growing awareness and fear that this tide of hatred toward Jews isn’t dissipating anytime soon,” Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, wrote in a blog post this month. “The signs are unmistakable: the second murderous assault on an American synagogue by white supremacist this past year, waves of vandalism, and an image that, in another age, might have been published in the pages of Der Stürmer—all occurring just days before we marked Yom HaShoah, this year on May 2nd, the Jewish national commemoration of the Holocaust.”

The federal government runs a grant program to help fund security upgrades at nonprofits like churches, synagogues, mosques, community centers and more, but only a handful of Massachusetts towns are eligible under specific geographic criteria for that program.

The JCRC has worked with the Legislature over the last few years to create a similar grant program at the state level for religious and nonprofit facilities “at risk of terrorism and violent threat.” In the fiscal year 2018 budget, the state provided $75,000 for such grants. It expanded to $150,000 last year, and this year the JCRC is working with Sens. Cindy Creem and Eric Lesser to secure passage of a Senate budget amendment (#1080 and #1100) that would grow the state pot to $1 million, as long as it is adopted and survives conference negotiations with the House, which did not fund the program in its fiscal 2020 budget.

On Monday, the JCRC sent to Gov. Charlie Baker and top legislators a letter signed by the leaders of about 150 Jewish institutions asking the Legislature to “step-up and fulfill its basic obligation by fully funding the non-profit security grant program to provide these critical resources to ensure that our communities and our congregations are safe and secure.”

“As faith communities meet our responsibility to welcome and embrace all who enter our doors, we need our government to realize its responsibility to offer the protection to make ‘freedom of religion’ a reality in the Commonwealth,” the groups wrote in the letter.

Organizations that wish to apply for the state grants must meet specific criteria and work with local police departments to identify the best uses of the funding. The state grant program calls for at least one award in each of the western, central and eastern parts of the state.

“The grants are usually for things like cameras, remote entry systems, better doors, shatterproof glass. The hope is obviously to deter and to create a feeling of safety among people who are feeling reasonably anxious,” JCRC Director of Government Affairs Aaron Agulnek said. “But at the end of the day, if someone is hellbent on mayhem, these types of security enhancements have been shown to slow someone down and give the first responders more time.”

Agulnek said the grant funding is “explicitly not for armed guards,” a security measure that gets raised in the wake of mass shootings but is often dismissed as being not compliant with the welcoming nature of a house of worship in any religion.

The JCRC’s and Jewish community’s call for the Legislature to “fully fund the nonprofit security grant program and to partner with at-risk communal institutions so that they have the resources to undertake necessary security enhancements” was amplified last week in the wake of three incidents of attempted arson at Chabad houses in Arlington and Needham.

Police in Arlington are investigating two suspicious fires set to the Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Arlington, where a local rabbi lives with his family. The first fire was reported late on May 11 and Arlington police added a full-time detail officer to the street after a second suspicious fire was extinguished at the center Thursday night.

“These are extremely concerning incidents in which an innocent family has had the safety and security of their home compromised by some else’s violent actions,” Arlington Police Chief Juliann Flaherty said.

Also Thursday, a fire was reported at the Chabad Jewish Center in Needhman. Police in that town said the incident “is being investigated as a possible hate crime” and noted that while there are similarities to the suspicious fires reported in Arlington, “we can’t say the incidents are conclusively connected at this time.”

Last month, after a fatal shooting at a California synagogue, Gov. Charlie Baker was asked about the possibility of having armed guards at places of worship. He said that the faith leaders he’s spoken with “would view that as a terrible step backwards. They want to be open, they want to be welcoming.”

Agulnek said it is a complicated issue for community centers and synagogues to try not to make people feel scared but to assure them of their security at the same time.

“That’s the crux here,” he said. “It’s not a place for people to be afraid, it’s a time for celebration and a place for people to come together. But in order for that to happen, people need to have this feeling of security.”

In 2017, amid reports of rising anti-Semitism in Massachusetts, Baker re-established the Hate Crimes Task Force. Based on that group’s ongoing work, Baker late last year suggested that all law enforcement agencies designate at least one officer to serve as the department’s point person on all hate crimes and that all agencies should require that officer to report any criminal act that appears to be motivated by bias to a new website the Executive Office of Public Safety is developing.

“Any anti-Semitic act – any act of hate or terror or violence or vandalism, against anybody or any organization because of their religion, their race, their sexual orientation – is zero tolerance here in the commonwealth of Mass.,” the governor said last year after the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Though the Legislature has been supportive of the relatively-new state grant program, Agulnek said the JCRC is hoping to get the program enshrined in law so nonprofits do not have to lobby for funding through the state budget each and every year.

“We now live in a time when we have the power to act. Governor Baker has reconstituted the MA Hate Crime Task Force. And our partners in the legislature share our commitment to ensure that institutions and all houses of worship can make the appropriate and necessary choices to balance safety and security with being open and welcoming,” Burton wrote. “But it is not nearly enough. Massachusetts has fallen behind other states.”

After providing $14.8 million in grant funding in 2017, the state of New York announced last year that it would make $10 million in additional funding available for non-public schools and cultural centers, including religious-based institutions, to improve their security. In New Jersey, the governor signed a bill in January that provided $11.3 million for security upgrades at non-public schools.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan included $5 million to enhance security at “potential targets for hate crimes, including schools and places of worship” in his fiscal year 2020 budget proposal and California Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced plans to fund $15 million worth of grants for “nonprofit organizations that are targets of hate-motivated violence” to improve their security measures.

Last Wednesday, the New England Revolution played Premier League team Chelsea FC in an exhibition game dubbed the Final Whistle on Hate, raising an estimated $4 million for 15 organizations that combat anti-Semitism and discrimination. The clubs’ owners, Robert Kraft and Roman Abramovich, each donated $1 million to the cause as well.

Though grant funding can help organizations improve their security measures and instill a sense of safety in communities, Agulnek said money is not the ultimate answer.

“It’s a component of it, but in order to get where we want to be going it’s all about education and bringing people together,” he said.


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