Anti-Jewish incidents are on the rise, including the Jan. 21 synagogue hostage-taking in Texas, antisemitic graffiti in Chicago and hateful fliers distributed in Wisconsin.
A 4% decrease in reported antisemitic incidents from 2020-2021, in Wisconsin, is the thinnest of silver linings. The reality is that Wisconsin antisemitic incidents are up 459%, from 2015 to 2021, according to the audits by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. National reports and data are also bleak.
This is why the Federation has ramped up security efforts in recent years, distributing and assisting with millions of dollars in grant money for community safety efforts, while sending security professionals to train people at synagogues and other Jewish institutions.
$2.2 million in FEMA Grants
Federal Emergency Management Agency grants for security are available for organizations in need, but that’s not the same as knowing about them or knowing how to best apply. It’s why Milwaukee Jewish Federation has been assisting the community with the FEMA grants for several years.
The numbers reached a new high last year. For 2021, 18 Jewish organizations were awarded a total of $2.2 million in FEMA grants for physical security upgrades.
“In some cases, we provided security site assessment for them. We provide grant writing for some of them. And we are project-managing some of the implementation as well,” said Federation Director of Security and Community Properties Ari Friedman. “This is for target hardening essentially, physical enhancement to make properties more secure.”
The 18 organizations assisted include Wisconsin synagogues, camps and schools.
The details of the upgrades are not being shared widely, for security purposes, but Rabbi Gil-Ezer Lerer of Temple Menorah did say his synagogue could never have applied for and obtained the FEMA grant assistance without Federation assistance.
“It’s very difficult. It’s pages and pages of documentation. It’s a lot of work. It’s not a very simple process,” Lerer said. “With Ari’s advice and guidance, we were able to secure the grant.”
There have also been grants for armed security from the Federation, unrelated to FEMA. The Federation has funded $300,000 in armed security costs for Shabbat and holidays at Wisconsin synagogues. Most of that $300,000, provided over the last three years, has been for southeastern Wisconsin synagogues, Friedman said. This year the program expanded to include all synagogues throughout the state.
Friedman also gets out into the community, providing active threat training for synagogue staff and others. He meets with organization leadership to discuss security best practices and site assessments.
“And then we’re also meeting with local and federal law enforcement partners, to invite them into the synagogue or the place where we’re doing the training,” Friedman said. “Sometimes, we’re educating them on why the Jewish community has some unique risks. This is something that some communities may not recognize, or be aware of.”
In the Milwaukee area, Security Manager Mitch Ross and Friedman recently visited the Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah congregation in Glendale to conduct active threat training. The session reviewed some recent incidents nationwide and offered best practices for how to respond.
“We hope people will never have to use this training,” Friedman said. “We prepare the community so they can be situationally aware and have some strategies for dealing with a threat situation.”
It’s important for all the members of the community to get this kind of “practical training,” said Rabbi Wes Kalmar, spiritual leader of Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah.
“The security training from Ari Friedman was very instructive and eye opening,” he added, “We learned things about shul security that we can be doing better. It helped us to think about security and planning in a new way.
Future security needs
Looking toward the future, Federation intends to raise funds to pay for security for years to come. “Our mission is to care for the needs of the Jewish people and sadly security has become a basic need,” said Miryam Rosenzweig, Federation president and CEO. “We have plans for expanding our security work locally and throughout the state over the next 15 years. We also need to find a way to fund it.” This will involve raising funds for an endowment to fund security needs in perpetuity.