March 25, 2017 In The News

Security funding for religious institutions made available through state grant

Enhancing security was never at the top of the to-do list for many local religious institutions, but in the recent wave of threats against churches and synagogues, both in the state and country, the safety of congregants and the community has become paramount.

While security has always been important, it wasn’t always so pressing, said Jennifer Dubrow Weiss, CEO of the Betty and Milton Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill. In February, a bomb threat was called into the JCC, forcing evacuations.

“Safety and security is our No. 1 priority,” Weiss said last week, adding that just a year ago the enhancements the busy center now seeks weren’t necessarily on its radar.

“But today it’s a different world,” she said.

With the need for upgrades, Weiss and others are grateful for the announcement last week that New Jersey is making $1 million in security grant funding available to religious organizations for the work.

Religious leaders and lawmakers had lobbied for the funding before Gov. Chris Christie announced Tuesday that religious institutions and nonprofit organizations in nine South Jersey counties, including Burlington, which were previously not covered for security funding, will now be eligible to apply.

The 12 other counties were already eligible.

“These dollars will allow us to do certain upgrades,” Weiss said.

The bomb threat to the Katz JCC was one in a string made against more than 100 Jewish centers and organizations nationwide in January and February. On Thursday, American and Israeli law enforcement officials announced that a 19-year-old Jewish man living in Israel was behind most of the threats.

“I’d encourage eligible nonprofits to apply for these grants, to help pay for security measures that will help to keep them and their organizations safer, and give their members additional peace of mind when they’re attending events put on by these groups,” Christie said.

The Security Enhancements Countering Unmitigated Risk grants (SECUR) will be funded through the state office of Homeland Security and offer up to $50,000 to institutions that are determined to be at high risk of terrorist attacks.

Determinations of high risk will be analyzed based on substantiation of previous threats, symbolic value of the site as a highly recognized institution, and findings from previous threat assessments.

The grant will reimburse awardees for allowable costs for the acquisition and installation of security equipment, specifically to prevent and protect against terrorism, such as physical security enhancement equipment and inspection and screening systems.

“In the face of rising acts of hate, we need all the resources we can muster to stop and contain acts of violence before they happen. These funds will help us do just that. Hate instills fear in our friends and neighbors, and has no place in our community or anywhere in our country,” said U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, D-1st of Camden, who advocated for the grants last year.

Burlington County hasn’t experienced threats against houses of worship in recent memory, according to Joel Bewley, public information officer for the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office.

One related incident was reported in 2011, when a man was charged with bias intimidation and criminal mischief for vandalizing statues at Catholic churches in Evesham and Mount Laurel.

The county recently experienced the dissemination of KKK recruitment fliers in Cinnaminson, Moorestown and Maple Shade. However, police officials said it didn’t appear that anyone was specifically targeted.

Although there haven’t been any recent threats to religious institutions in the county, the bomb threat to the Katz JCC was close to home.

“These dollars will allow us to do certain upgrades,” Weiss said, although she did not want to disclose what improvements the JCC would look to make with a grant because of security reasons.

The Katz center serves Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties.