scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Jewish schools, synagogues seek state grants to improve security

The New England Holocaust Memorial was targeted multiple times by vandals in 2017.Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

A Hebrew academy said it intended to make its sanctuary “impenetrable by bullets.” A Jewish day camp wanted more than a dozen blast-resistant trash cans. Leaders of a South Shore synagogue said that a concrete barrier on its property could help thwart a bombing.

“Any improvised explosive device (IED) left in a vehicle would not gain entry,” they wrote in an application for a state grant.

As a wave of anti-Semitic incidents rises both in Massachusetts and beyond, Jewish day schools, community centers, and houses of worship are seeking out funding for advanced security measures that once would have seemed unthinkable.


Nearly two dozen organizations have applied for grants from a state program designed to funnel money toward security upgrades at nonprofits. Of the 25 applications to the program last fiscal year, 22 came from Jewish organizations requesting nearly $885,000, according to a Globe review of more than 150 pages of documents provided through a public records request.

Just three applicants — a synagogue, a Jewish high school, and a secular hospital — won funding, totaling about $150,000. Taken together, however, the details of the requests evoke not just an image of a religious community roiled by mass shootings in synagogues from California to Pennsylvania, but also a gnawing question: Is no place safe anymore?

“It was very difficult to talk about, because the whole concept [of more hardened security] doesn’t agree with the Jewish tradition, which is always open and welcoming,” said Joan Rosner, president of Holyoke’s Congregation Sons of Zion, which won one of the three $50,000 state grants and used it, in part, to hold the first active shooter training in the synagogue’s 115-year history.

“Now we’re having to face a situation where we’re having to lock doors. It’s made us put in a greeter,” at the entrance, she said. “It’s not what we want it to be. It’s not the open place we want to be.”


Only a $75,000 program two years ago, the Legislature this year increased available funding to $500,000 in response to the number of requests. Among the applications filed by Jewish organizations, plans for closed-circuit surveillance cameras and security lights were commonplace. But so were more intricate measures, including coded entry systems and panic buttons.

One north-of-Boston synagogue said it would buy cameras so advanced, it would be able “to capture license plate numbers as well as facial recognition,” according to its application. Several applicants said they would install barriers, such as concrete planters, to help stop a vehicle from crashing into the building.

A day camp that serves Jewish children would have used some of the grant money to purchase 13 “blast-resistant trash barrels,” in addition to new lights and cameras. Local police, which often provide security assessments for nearby organizations, had helped identify its needs, camp leaders wrote.

“Our sanctuary and rear hallway would be impenetrable by bullets,” a Hebrew academy wrote in its request, which also included replacing doors on “safe rooms” and expanding its alarm system by adding more panic buttons. “Our job is to make sure our children do not have to think about their safety.”

One suburban synagogue, in seeking a grant, said it had already taken several measures, including buying a half-dozen radios that would connect them directly to local police via a one-touch emergency button.


“Unfortunately, we’ve reached a point in this country that installing bomb-resistant glass in a place of worship or a preschool is now considered standard practice,” said state Senator Eric P. Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat who pushed to increase the state grant program’s funding. “There’s tremendous unmet need.”

The Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, in applying for a grant, told state officials that it alone had received nearly $250,000 in funding requests from seven of its local organizations, some of whom also applied to the state. They were hoping to buy everything from steel door and window guards to concrete bollards and security glass, according to the application.

Stewart Bromberg, the federation’s chief executive, said the organization had hired a consultant in 2017 to do a risk assessment of each of its local agencies as a way to improve security.

“Unfortunately, events started to unfold this year that made it even more important,” he said.

The October 2018 shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, which killed 11, was among them. In Massachusetts, officials also counted a record 177 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 and 144 more in 2018, a number that trailed only California, New York, and New Jersey.

Then in May, two arson fires broke out at the Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Arlington and another at a rabbi’s Chabad house in Needham in a matter of days, sending a chill through the community.

“I think we’re responding to the national climate. It’s sad. It’s sad that America has seen so much violence and so much hatred,” said Gail Schulman, chief operating officer at Waltham’s Gann Academy, a Jewish high school awarded one of the $50,000 grants.


“For us, this is a cost of doing business,” she said. “We’re a school. We want the kids to focus on learning and growing. We don’t want people to be distracted by fear.”

Outside of the Jewish community, Harrington Hospital in Southbridge was awarded the third grant, a $46,000 infusion that it intends to put toward developing a disaster-response plan with local municipalities, said spokesman Harry Lemieux. The hospital has refocused its security measures since 2017 after a nurse was stabbed multiple times by a patient in the emergency room.

The state program was launched two years ago to provide funds to nonprofits that didn’t qualify under a similar federal program designed for “urban area” organizations, such as those in Greater Boston.

Other states have launched their own programs, too, some backed by millions of dollars. Last year, New York made $10 million available for those targeted by hate crimes, months after awarding nearly $15 million during an initial round of grants. California officials said in April they intend to create a $15 million program for nonprofits, while Maryland officials said they’ll award $3 million this fiscal year.

Massachusetts officials plan to accept applications for this fiscal year in the fall, a state spokesman said. The grants, which the state has capped at $50,000 per project, are required to go to at least one organization in Western, Central, and Eastern Massachusetts.


The interest here among Jewish institutions in the grants is driven, in part, by such organizations as the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, which publicizes their availability to centers and synagogues.

“There is a level of anxiety [in the community],” said Aaron Agulnek, the organization’s director of government affairs. “Safe places should be safe places. Programs like this and smart target-hardening upgrades can help promote peace of mind.

“But,” he added, “it’s also not the final answer to the problem.”

Reach Matt Stout at Follow him on twitter @mattpstout