Van Hollen backs more security funding for houses of worship

At Kemp Mill Synagogue, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) speaks about the need for additional federal funding for security for religious nonprofits. Photo by Suzanne Pollak

Silver Spring-area rabbis, a pastor and a representative from the Orthodox Union shared the podium March 4 as Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) promised to do all he could to bring more federal dollars for security to houses of worship.

“Number one is we all need to be united when it comes to confronting hatred and bigotry,” Van Hollen said during a press conference at Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring. “As a community, we always need to stand up for each other.”

Van Hollen called the need increased fundinga sad sign of the times.”

Antisemitic threats and violence increased during the pandemic, including a hostage-taking attack at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas.

“We are living in a country that values religious freedom,” said Nathan Diament, executive director for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center. Federal grant money “is absolutely essential to the Jewish community.”

During Fiscal Year 2021, the federal government, through Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program, distributed $180 million to synagogues, churches, mosques and Sikh temples as well as other faith-based nonprofits. Those organizations used the federal dollars to build fencing, purchase surveillance cameras, hire police and train volunteers on up to date security measures.

However, according to Van Hollen, an additional $220 million in were turned down due to lack of funds. Van Hollen said that is why he is pushing a bill to increase funding to $360 million.

Van Hollen noted that President Joe Biden supports the increase.

Maryland received $20 million of the total funds during Fiscal Year 2021.

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, said the money is needed so houses of worship could carry out their mission to being spirituality and purpose to members and provide support for families.

“That is all we seek to do,” he said.

Following every attack on a house of worship, people think, “That just as well could have been my synagogue,” Diament said.

The grants are important as help provide “peace of mind” to congregants, added Rabbi Nissan Antine, senior rabbi at Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac. His synagogue spent money on a system that enables its sanctuary to be locked by pressing a button, even when the volunteer security team members from his congregation are not in the sanctuary.

The Rev. Doug Bratt, senior pastor at Silver Spring Christian Reformed Church, said he wanted to stand with his neighboring synagogues in Kemp Mill. During the pandemic, “We have come together to help our neighbors who are hungry.” That brought about a “deepened concern for, a love for, our neighbors,” he said, adding everyone should feel secure when worshiping.

Montgomery County County Executive Marc Elrich called it sad that the government needs to spend money on security when it could be funding programs.

The county’s role is to protect residents from such abuse as well as allow people to worship safely, Elrich said. “We are obligated to do all we can to make sure nothing happens.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security website, the grant program is designed to support nonprofits that are at a high risk of terrorist attack. The money could be used for physical security enhancements and training efforts.

Each nonprofit or house of worship may apply for up to $150,000.

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