Jewish groups face tricky balancing act in seeking federal funds for security

Should synagogues and Jewish day schools get federal tax dollars to help them beef up security to meet the rising terror threat?

That debate is playing out in congressional offices in Washington and communal boardrooms in New York as lawmakers begin work on a measure that would provide up to $100 million to help “vulnerable” nonprofit organizations cope with the expensive quest for security.

The issue raises thorny church-state and practical concerns. And it represents a huge public relations challenge for the Jewish organizations that played a major role in the bill’s introduction.

The threat is real and the money is needed, but it will take more than need to convince Congress, beset by budget woes that may leave many priorities underfunded, to sign on the dotted line.

For Jewish institutions, the threat is obvious. They are among the “soft targets” that U.S. intelligence officials say are on al-Qaida’s hit-list. In case anybody needed reminding, the apparent arson at a Montreal school punctuated the point.

As the war in Iraq gets messier and Islamic rage grows, there are indications other terror groups could get in on the act, directing their demented armies of martyrs to U.S. cities. At the top of the list: Hezbollah, which has already demonstrated a willingness to go beyond the Middle East in seeking Jewish targets.

Jewish leaders face a staggering financial burden as anxious communities across the country struggle to meet the security challenge. And with federal homeland security funding soaring, Washington was the obvious place to look.

But that effort quickly produced the inevitable church-state debate.

Some Jewish groups worried that providing government payments to overtly religious groups like churches and synagogues would set a precedent that advocates of religious-school funding would drive through with a truck.

Strict church-state separationists also worried that funding for security upgrades would be challenged in court, providing a particularly unfavorable test case that could make it easier for a divided Supreme Court to rule in favor of direct funding for religious groups.

It’s one thing to bar funds for parochial-school education, another to bar the money needed to protect houses of worship against suicide bombings. An unfavorable decision by the high court could transform the church-state debate in America, the separationists worried.

The separation issue was mostly solved when Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) worked out a compromise that would require the Department of Homeland Security to deal directly with contractors so no funds would go directly to religious groups.

But the Senate bill was disrupted when a lead GOP sponsor, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), balked at the church-state compromise.

Harder to deal with are some of the political and public relations issues.

For all the increase in homeland security funding, there are growing concerns that basic services, including “first responders” like police, fire and rescue departments, are still woefully underfunded.

Congress is facing mushrooming deficits exacerbated by the tremendous costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; overall, the level of funding for homeland security has not come near the level of pious rhetoric coming from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

There is growing conflict over how that money is allocated as well, including disputes over the relative shares going to big cities and smaller communities.

How will the public react if Jewish day schools get money for closed-circuit cameras and additional police protection, while local fire departments complain they still don’t have the money to buy protective gear and radiation detectors?

That isn’t to say that helping those institutions is inappropriate. But the fight for federal money for synagogues and other religious institutions will be difficult and fraught with complications.

To avoid them, Jewish leaders will have to be at the forefront of efforts to expand the overall homeland security pie. A homeland security drive that is seen as strictly self-serving will fail, both legislatively and in terms of community relations.

If Jewish leaders want money for schools and synagogues, they’ll also have to be prominent in the fight for more money for local first responders.

Regardless of the outcome in Congress, Jewish institutions are going to have to do a much better job raising money through philanthropic channels.

Assuming the $100 million is approved, hundreds of synagogues, Jewish centers and schools are likely to apply — and thousands of other vulnerable nonprofits, religious and non-religious. In the end, the payout to each successful applicant is likely to be relatively small.

The hard question is this: Will those small sums justify the public perception of a prosperous Jewish community going to the federal government with palms extended when police and fire departments say they are on a starvation diet?

But the stakes in the security race are enormous; it would be reckless for Jewish leaders to turn away from the possibility of even modest federal contributions to the effort.

It’s a tricky balancing act. To keep from falling, Jewish leaders will have to be smart, proactive and sensitive to the needs of the nation, not just a vulnerable Jewish community.

James Besser is a Washington correspondent for Jewish newspapers across the country.