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Heightened Security: Paying for The Increased Cost of Keeping Congregants Safe

Updated: Aug 27

The post below originally appeared on eJewishphilanthropy.com on October 24, 2019.

As we approach October 27th, the one year anniversary of the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, our community continues to struggle with issues of security. We wonder collectively how to keep our communities safe – and to enable our congregants and community members to feel secure in a warm and welcoming environment. While security consultants advise on the best ways to protect our buildings, and membership committees struggle with how to keep our synagogues welcoming. One big question is how to pay for it.

Synagogues across North America, and indeed the world, are searching for funding solutions. The costs to ensure safe space for congregants and participants are not insignificant.  There are a variety of measures that can be taken to create that secure space for people to worship, learn, and celebrate. These target hardening measures might include physical improvements such as instillation of metal detectors, concrete bollards and security glass, cameras, and double-door vestibules. It might also include staff training, the hiring of armed personal, or police monitoring.

As the needs of each congregation is different, so are the costs associated with these many levels of security. Physical protections can cost upwards of $150,000 or more in some cases and the personnel costs can reach up to $50+ per hour. Adding guards to a payroll is a recurring and significant expense.

As a wave of anti-Semitic incidents rises across our country, Jewish day schools, community centers, and houses of worship are seeking out funding for advanced security measures. Most Jewish institutions do not have budgets set aside for these costs.  Institutions are forced to be creative to locate funding for these measures and out of the box thinking can minimize the burden on congregants.

To find funding, consider a variety of sources:

Government: Since 2007, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has allocated $173.5 million to nonprofit organizations at high risk of terrorist attack. Currently, about $60 million is allocated for this year’s budget and Jewish groups are lobbying for an increase to $75 million for next year.  The security grant program is funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and administered in each state by the state Office of Emergency Services. Synagogues can apply for grants through the government (https://www.fema.gov/nonprofit-security-grant-program) to support target hardening activities.

In addition, state and local governments may have grant programs or funds to allocate for security.  The federal grants cannot be used for salaried security guards, so state funds might help to cover those costs.

Federations:  Many Jewish Federations offer their own security grants to local Jewish organizations. The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey has a grant for security preparedness that spans the entire Jewish community.  In addition to assisting with training, they provide 15 targeted matching grants from the Federation itself for basic security improvements, such as cameras and surveillance systems, lighting, and keypads, at partners' locations.  Other regional federations may offer similar programs.

Foundations and Corporate Sponsors:  Corporations such as Target have grant funding for community security.  Though these grants may be specific in nature, exploring options beyond the government is a good idea to widen the base of support. If there is a direct connection between the congregation and the foundation or corporation, that will strengthen the possibility of a successful grant request.

Major Donors: There may be a congregant at a synagogue community who may be inclined and interested in funding increased security measures.  Perhaps one or more major donors can be approached directly to fund capital improvements, partially relieving some of the burden from the congregation.  Spending a few moments at a board meeting to identify a small list of potential donors (perhaps with the prequalification of one or two around the table) is a worthwhile activity that might yield surprising results.

Another source that is free and extremely important are security trainings conducted through the Jewish Federations. The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh conducted security training for the Tree of Life Synagogue. One session in September, 2017 and the other on September 5, 2018.   Because of this training, Rabbi Myers carried a cell phone with him and was the first to contact 911 during the Tree of Life tragedy. The trainings are free and open to all community members in Pittsburgh.  Prior to the Tree of Life shooting, the Federation of Greater Pittsburgh conducted 135 free training sessions for over 6000 people.

Moreover, the Secure Community Network – the official safety and security organization for The Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations – as well as the network of over 45 Community Security Directors employed by SCN and/or Federations around the country offer assessments, training, security consultation as well as response to incidents and issues, across the country, and often at no charge. SCN also operates the communities 24/7 Duty Desk, which is available to intake reports or incidents impacting the community and also develops and disseminates – in partnership with local, state and federal law enforcement – key intelligence and information related to safety and security (dutydesk@securecommunitynetwork.org).

There is no guarantee that the government or other outside entities will fund security measures. There are far more Jewish institutions and organizations applying for grants then there are funds available. Many congregations have resigned themselves to attaching security fees to their membership dues.

How to Add a Security Fee:

Be Transparent: Synagogues need to assess the actual cost for additional security and relay that information to members.  If congregants understand the line items that are necessary to ensure the safety of those entering the building, they are more likely to pay for those improvements.  In addition, if congregants see that there are other active measures in place to try and offset costs, they will be more likely to support the additional fees.


Consider a Vote:  Though most dues increases tend to be discussed and approved by synagogue boards, engaging and educating the entire congregation can be beneficial. Allowing members to vote on the increased fees will help them to understand why the money is needed and exactly how it will be spent.  Even if it is only a select percentage who is brought in on the process, those people can become advocates to the larger congregation.


Incremental Adjustments: Phased increases might help to ease the pain of funding needed security. By adding fees over time, congregants have time to adjust to the increased fees and may be more likely to accept additional hikes. This could be mean phasing projects, such as adding bollards one year and upgrading the glass the next.


Don’t Worry:   The good news is although there may be pushback and grumbling, it is not likely to affect membership renewals. Tony Rossell, senior vice president of Marketing General Incorporated, has reported (https://membershipmarketing.blogspot.com/2011/10/impact-of-membership-dues-increase-on.html) evidence that membership retention can hold even through a somewhat significant dues increase. MGI research shows that membership rates can withstand a dues increase of as much as 20% before there’s a drop-off in renewals.  Another recent study by McKinley Advisors found that over 94% of their survey respondents reported that they were not able to directly attribute historical declines in membership to a dues increase. 

One thing is unfortunately clear – the need for heightened security does not appear to be subsiding. Anti-Semitic incidents have been increasing here and around the world. ADL has tracked anti-Semitic incidents for the past four decades and in 2018 recorded the third-highest number of incidents.  The 2018 total is 48% higher than the number of incidents in 2016 and 99% higher than in 2015. Synagogues and other Jewish institutions are faced with the daily reality that keeping their communities safe is a priority.


Let us know how your congregation or community institution has handled this challenge.

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