Grants to help tighten security at synagogues, agencies

Long before vandals tattooed the outside of Fremont's Congregation Beth Torah earlier this month with a grotesque festoon of swastikas, profanity and anti-Semitic slurs, other Bay Area congregations were seeking help in thwarting criminals.

It looks like they'll get that help from the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

"We're looking at proposals from temples, JCCs — anyone who wants help with security measures," said Jonathan Bernstein, the Anti-Defamation League's regional director.

Bernstein sits on a security committee co-sponsored by the federation and the Jewish Community Relations Council. The committee is overseeing the application process for security-related grants.

Proposals selected for funding will represent a 50-50 partnership. The endowment will pick up the cost of hardware, such as alarm systems and closed-circuit television. The temple or agency will provide fencing, staffing and employee education.

Requests have been streaming in at a steady clip since the summer's brief but frightening burst of crimes directed at Jews and Jewish institutions.

Yesterday marked the deadline for the first round of submissions. A subcommittee of security experts will begin reviewing the proposals, and the endowment will then decide how much it can earmark for the one-time grants. As of now, there is no minimum or maximum amount.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, the JCRC's executive director, declined to estimate how large the grants might be.

"We'll be looking at whether an organization needs help paying for the whole project or a significant contribution," Kahn said. "We want to help people."

All congregations and Jewish organizations in the Bay Area are eligible.

Kahn said he isn't aware of "any other community that has undertaken so comprehensive a plan as this."

No grant will be approved until the proposing organization has conducted a rigorous study and consulted with law enforcement or professional security consultants "who know the field," he said.

Although the first-round deadline has passed, other proposals will be considered.

Questionnaires were sent out last week to all JCRC member organizations. The questions and answers should help each group zero in on what they really need, Kahn said. "It requires them to look so closely they will see where the gaps are. We are really asking a lot of them."

Each will be queried on details such as:

*The presence of piers or equipment that intruders could stand on to gain entry.

*Gaps in fencing.

*Whether visitors can enter the grounds by car or on foot during off-hours.

*Whether there is a "clear record" of who holds keys to the building.

"The best thing about this is that institutions have developed really structured, thorough security plans," said Abby Michelson-Porth, JCRC's coordinator of intergroup relations and special projects. "We've all become a lot more educated."

The committee quickly realized the proposals needed to be standardized, she added.

The first 15 to 20 "were just so very different from each other. In each one, there were one or two things that were really great. So we decided to make up a template that included the best of everything."

Those qualifying for the grants must be committed to teaching staff how to enact an emergency plan, all the way down to developing a script for media releases in the event of a catastrophe.

"The work we're requiring is lengthy and difficult, but in the end they get an incredible security plan," she said.

Do congregations that adopt every element listed in the template run the risk of looking more like fortresses than places of spiritual comfort?

"That's something the security committee has been grappling with," Michelson-Porth said. "They're concerned with changing the face of the Jewish community. We want to remain open and accessible, but it's important to find a medium [ground]."

Some institutions are detailing their work already in progress — partly to get feedback while they develop a full plan. Projects most likely to receive grants will demonstrate the greatest effectiveness for the least expenditure.

The bottom line: What level of risk does the institution face?

It is hoped that tighter security measures — fences, security systems and emergency plans — will reduce risks.

Still, even the multipronged approach that Bernstein recommends — "stronger laws, community response, police response and surveillance of hate groups" — can't spin an airtight cocoon.