Congress last month increased fiscal year 2016 funding for the Department of Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grants Program to $20 million, but the Reform movement doesn’t want the money.
Since the program was launched in 2005 to help fund synagogues’ and other organizations’ security needs, the Union for Reform Judaism and Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism have advised Reform-affiliated synagogues to not participate, calling the legislation in a 2004 memo “a serious violation of church-state separation.”
According to the RAC, the 2004 guidelines remain the same and reflect the Reform movement’s current position. Congregations are referred to the memo for guidance on the issue. However, some synagogues have decided to apply for funds, a decision the RAC says independent congregations are free to make.
One local congregation that went against the RAC and URJ’s guidance is Temple Sinai. Last year, the Northwest Washington congregation received $53,253 in security funding. The maximum amount nonprofits can receive is $75,000.
“We are certainly aware of the RAC’s position, but are also grateful for the funding that’s been made available to the community for security enhancements,” said Mark Spira, director of development at Temple Sinai. “We applied and received funding, and it will go towards enhancing security around the temple.”
Across the Potomac River, Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church decided to not apply for federal security funding. Executive Director Beth Silver said the synagogue was following the Reform movement’s guidance on church-state separation.
In the 2004 letter to rabbis, presidents and temple administrators, Robert Heller, former chair of the URJ’s Board of Trustees, and Rabbi David Saperstein, the RAC’s former director, write that applying for the grants “dangerously threatens the wall separating church and state, which has been a bedrock of democracy and the foundation of religious liberty in our country for more than 200 years.”
To be sure, other organizations have challenged the assertion that religious institutions receiving federal government funding for security enhancements is unconstitutional.
The Orthodox Union, for instance, lobbied hard for the initial appropriation and has continued advocating for increased funding for Jewish institutions, citing a rise in anti-Semitic incidents and threats of violence.
“It is a religion-neutral program awarded on the basis of religion neutral criteria,” said Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy at the OU. “Individual synagogues are, of course, free to make their own decisions as to whether they want to apply for and utilize these grants.”
Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington Executive Director Ron Halber also believes that the program is constitutional. He said that around the time the program started, the JCRC’s executive committee met to discuss constitutional concerns, bringing in an attorney from New York who specialized in church-state issues.
“We had to make a decision from an operational, from a process point of view, whether we felt it was right for our organization to get involved in helping synagogues and institutions secure this money, while simultaneously taking into church-state concerns,” recalled Halber. “After a very thorough discussion we decided that we were going to help organizations get money and we have continued to do that ever since.”
Millions of dollars have been secured by Jewish congregations and institutions since the program began, according to Halber, saying that the Jewish community has “greatly benefited” from the program. As a member of a Reform shul, Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Halber said he respects the Reform movement’s decision to advise its congregations not to accept the money. However, he said “they are leaving potential money on the table.”
He said the JCRC works with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington on the security grant process.
Said Halber: “If the Reform movement decides to go for it we have the resources and the expertise to help them write and to greatly increase the odds that they will secure a grant.”