Blurry Lines Between Church and State: Federal Funding in Jewish Institutions

Jewish politics from the nation’s capital.
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1.  More federal dollars to help protect synagogues

Last week, only days after the deadly attack at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, Congress approved a massive increase to the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP), which will reach $90 million in 2020, compared to the $60 million allocated in 2019.

What is the NSGP? Behind this Capitol Hill acronym stands a unique program, which marked a new phase in the Jewish community’s relationship with the government. In essence, the program, administered by the Department of Homeland Security, is meant to help secure nonprofit organizations facing terrorist threats. And while the name and definition of the program make clear that it is open to institutions of all faiths and all types of nonprofit organizations, the money is distributed mainly to synagogues and Jewish institutions.

It took the Jewish community some time to get used to this post-9/11 program which, for the first time, provided direct federal aid to Jewish houses of worship, leaping over the wall separating church and state. But rising security costs and the limited scope of the program quickly convinced almost all to join in and bid annually for the government grants.

This year, it was almost a no-brainer. In the wake of two murderous attacks on synagogues, in Pittsburgh and in Poway, and with the news from Jersey City just coming in, lawmakers needed little convincing. According to the Orthodox Union, which has been at the forefront of lobbying for the grants, the total amount distributed since NSGP began in 2005 now reaches $329 million. The largest increase in fundingwhich started off at $25 million, and then dipped to the teenshappened in 2018 and corresponds with the rise in anti-Semitic incidents across America.

2. How effective is the program?

NSGP grants can be used primarily for installing security devices such as entry systems, CCTV cameras, lighting and, in more limited ways, security staff. Anyone who has visited a synagogue in the past decade must have noticed the beefed-up security—from guards, at times armed, to stricter questioning at the door and emergency drills for students and synagogue members.

The costs easily add up, and with synagogues already struggling to maintain membership numbers, raising its dues to meet the costs is not the preferred option.

This is where these government grants can be helpful, especially for smaller shuls, which are more likely to be Orthodox, that truly cannot find the funds for security improvements.

But their effectiveness is, after all, limited.

Take Jersey City. The attack was aimed at a grocery store, not a nonprofit that could access the grants. And what about the small Hasidic school next door, where some 50 children hid in a back room for hours as gunshots rang on the other side of the wall? It’s hard for such tiny establishments to go through the bureaucratic hurdles needed to qualify for a government grant.

It is also true that fortifying synagogues can only go so far. There’s little that can be done to stop a brainwashed racist armed murderer from storming a synagogue. Security measures can mitigate the threat and limit the damage, but none offer full protection.

Still, at the end of the day, the consensus within the Jewish community, even among members of the liberal denominations, is that government security grants are a useful tool. It’s a tradeoff between maintaining the principle of blocking taxpayer dollars used for religious purposes and giving synagogues and institutions the funds they need for security.

Reality on the ground has made this choice obvious. With a consistant rise in anti-Semitic incidents, the community will take any help it can get.

3. Tax credits for synagogues are back

The Orthodox Union and its Washington lobbying arm registered another success last week, just as Congress was clearing up the table before leaving for the New Year’s recess. At issue was a 21 percent tax on religious institutions and other nonprofits whose workers receive non-cash benefits such as meals, transportation, etc. The new tax was included in Trump’s tax cut and has been burdening Jewish religious institutions ever since.

Now, Congress agreed to repeal the tax and return to the rules that were in place before 2017.

This may sound like a minor issue, but these are exactly the type of issues that the Jewish community works on behind the scenes.

4. Did Trump prove there’s no need for a liaison to the Jewish community?

It takes a person like Stephen Miller, Trump’s top adviser and architect of the administration’s immigration plan, to evoke such strong feelings.

Miller came under a lot of fire recently. Leaked emails demonstrated how Miller trafficked in white nationalist material before joining the administration, confirming suspicions of pro-immigration advocates that his views are fueled by a supremacist agenda.

Recently it was also reported that Miller suggested embedding ICE agents in the U.S. refugee resettlement agency in order to obtain data about those seeking shelter in America.

All this was too much for 25 Jewish members of Congress, all Democrats, who demanded in a letter to Trump that he fire Miller immediately. “His documented support for white nationalist and virulently anti-immigrant tropes is wholly unacceptable and disqualifying for a government employee,” the lawmakers wrote.

Under attack, Miller chose to respond on Fox Business News, where in an interview he accused the Democrats of being racist and projecting their own racism on himself and on Trump.

5. But what about the rest of the community?

No need to worry, it’s still with us.

The month of December ushered in the usual claims that someone is somehow trying to hide Christmas in favor of an amorphous “holiday season.” Leading the charge this year was Scott Walker, the former governor of Wisconsin, who tweeted a photo of his Christmas tree, adding: “This is a Christmas Tree that is used by people celebrating Christmas. This is not a holiday tree.”

In West Virginia, according to The New York Times, a mini-kerfuffle broke out when a local mayor wanted to hold a “winter parade” rather than a “Christmas parade.”

But the debate seems to have lost its edge this year and is far from capturing national attention. One possible reason: Donald Trump seems to have let go and did not speak out about this alleged “war” in his pre-Christmas addresses.

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