Answers sought after Feds drastically cut security grants for Jewish groups

August 11, 2016
In The News

A California congressman wants answers as to why a federal funding source for local Jewish institutions to beef up security has mostly dried up.

Last fiscal year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) issued about $1.9 million in security grants to 27 California nonprofit organizations — all but one of them Jewish — as part of its Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP).

The following funding cycle, the amount was reduced to $297,950 — an 84 percent decrease. 

In an Aug. 4 letter, Congressman Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), whose district includes West Los Angeles, wrote to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson to say he’s “deeply concerned” about the funding decrease.

FEMA is a DHS agency, putting Johnson in charge of its operations.

In the letter, Lieu requested “an explanation for the dramatic change in funding levels for California institutions.”

Nationwide, the total amount of NSGP funding, which goes to institutions in urban areas deemed at risk of a terrorist attack, grew from $13 million to $20 million from 2015 to 2016.

The number of applicants from California also grew, from 83 to 94 institutions, with 52 applications originating from the Los Angeles/Long Beach area, according to Shawn Boyd, an information officer for the California Office of Emergency Services (CalOES).

CalOES is responsible for scoring and prioritizing applications from California before sending the highest-scored funding requests to FEMA, which also assigns them secondary scores. 

This year, only four California applicants received NSGP grants, according to CalOES. 

That means the approval rate for California grant applications fell from about 33 percent to 8 percent. The amount awarded to California institutions is less than a third of the funds granted to Los Angeles groups alone last year.

Responding to an inquiry about the funding decrease, FEMA said in a statement the NSGP is a “highly competitive program.” 

Further, it said, “in FY 2016, a majority of California’s applications had lower final scores when compared to applications from other urban areas.”

That answer is less than satisfactory for some.

“We are gravely concerned about this decrease and feel entitled to some explanation,” said Irving Lebovics, chairman of Agudath Israel of California, a grassroots political organization that lobbies on behalf of observant Jews here.

Bryan Kaplan, a Jewish education consultant in Los Angeles who offers free help to synagogues and schools applying for federal grants, said the government’s explanation doesn’t hold water.

An active member of Agudath Israel of California, Kaplan has been working on NSGP grants since 2008, he said. This year, Jewish School Consultant, a company he operates, wrote 10 applications in California. 

Because CalOES hasn’t yet informed grant recipients of their status, he hasn’t heard which, if any, were successful. But he sees it as unlikely that he and the other L.A. grant writers all experienced a drastic decline in quality at once. 

“It wasn’t our writing that was the problem,” he said.

In Dallas, he said, his writing for a synagogue was good enough to help it win one of four grants awarded in that metropolitan area.

It’s more likely, he said, that the low funding could reflect a lapse at CalOES, that local politicians failed to play their role in lobbying FEMA for funding, or possibly both.

For instance, in New York, where Kaplan said politicians have been more vocal, NSGP funding amounted this year to about $5 million — the highest of any state.

“I’m not saying that our politicians did something wrong,” Kaplan said. “I’m just saying that they probably didn’t do anything.”

He said Agudath Israel of California is in touch with Lieu and Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Orange), a senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee to see what federal funds are available to make up for the shortfall.

For now, though, the funding decrease means local Jewish institutions will have to look elsewhere to finance security improvement projects.

According to FEMA, the grant “provides support for target hardening and other physical security enhancements to nonprofit organizations that are at high risk of terrorist attack.”

Target hardening refers to increased security measures at so-called “soft” targets — unprotected civilian institutions. After large-scale terrorist attacks at a Florida gay nightclub in June and, closer to home, at a regional government building in San Bernardino in December, awareness of such vulnerabilities is higher than ever.

“Hate-motivated violence threatens many communities in our state and district,” Lieu wrote in the DHS letter.

He added, “In my district alone, there are more than 50 religious institutions and schools, common targets for hate crimes.”

He listed Los Angeles’ African-American, Latino, Jewish, Muslim, LGBT, Sikh and Asian-American communities as potential targets.

One of the 2015 grantees in Los Angeles falls under two of those categories. 

Beth Chayim Chadashim, an LGBT synagogue in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, received $63,500 last year, which it is putting toward security upgrades to its facility, said Ruth Geffner, the synagogue’s executive director.

Geffner said that for BCC, the FEMA grant “means that we’re not pulling from our budget” to improve the security of its members.  

“These funds are either funds that we wouldn’t have or that we would have to pull from somewhere else,” she said.

Other local grant recipients in 2015 include Chabad houses in West Hills and Woodland Hills, New Community Jewish High School (now known as de Toledo High School) and Young Israel of North Beverly Hills.