Jewish and other faith-based nonprofits in Pittsburgh and across the state will soon be able to apply for security grants from the newly created Nonprofit Security Grant Fund, established last week after Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law HB 859.
The law will allocate $5 million for the fiscal year to help faith-based Pennsylvania nonprofits put increased resources toward the safety and security of their facilities and communities.
The massacre at the Tree of Life building last year was a catalyst for speeding the bill’s passage.
“We have been working on this basically since Oct. 27, 2018,” said Josh Sayles, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “We have been working in lockstep with the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition to take the lead on this. This is a really important piece of legislation and a really important step forward for our community.”
The PJC, led by Hank Butler, lobbies the state government on behalf of Pennsylvania’s Jewish Federations and other community representatives, often working in concert with other religious advocacy groups.
“After the Tree of Life shooting, the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition and the governor’s office sat down and we tried to figure out what we could do,” Butler said. “We really started working through ideas. We looked at security of all faiths, all areas, JCCs, YMCAs. The Tree of Life incident, along with the bomb threats against the JCCs, along with the desecration of cemeteries, along with other faiths and their bomb threats — Pittsburgh had one for example in June, a person tried to bomb a church. And we really all got together, not as a Jewish community, but also with the governor and the leadership of the Pennsylvania legislature, and had a discussion of what can we do. And we realized that having security grants was a top priority.”
While community leaders will also be addressing other issues such as hate crimes and anti-Semitism, “right now, we need to make people feel safe as they go into their congregations or their facilities and not be worried,” Butler said.
Individual religious nonprofit entities will be able to apply for grants from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Criminal Delinquency. Led by former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, the PCCD works with Pennsylvania State Police and Homeland Security to determine the applying community’s vulnerability and need.
In order to allow for smaller religious communities to get the funds they need, a three-tier system has been included in the new law.
The first tier of grants will award between $5,000 and $25,000, to be made outright, without a need for matching funds from the applying community; this, Butler believes, will allow needy communities to start instituting the basics of community security, like bulletproof glass and security cameras. Grants above that threshold, up to $75,000, will require a 33% match. The final tier will make grants of up to $150,000, requiring a 50% match.
It was important to Butler and others working on getting the bill passed that the final version would allow for security experts to be the body making security decisions, rather than politicians and committees.
Determinations about community security should be “based on the expertise of the state police, Homeland Security and public safety experts,” Butler said. Institutions “that are most vulnerable to acts of hate or violence” will be given funding priority.
Once the application process is open, the Pittsburgh Federation “will work to alert all our Jewish communal institutions in Southwestern Pennsylvania to apply,” Sayles said. “Each organization will need to apply on its own and should start thinking about (security) assessments now.”
Although the Oct. 27, 2018, massacre “happened to target the Jewish community and it happened to be in Pittsburgh and it happened to be a synagogue in Squirrel Hill, we know that this could have happened and has happened to a wide range of diverse communities throughout the United States,” Sayles said. “Whether you’re talking about a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, or a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, or an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida, or Chabad of Poway, unfortunately the list goes on and on and on. And we have an obligation not only to protect ourselves but to help to protect everyone in Pennsylvania.”
Although this legislation is an important step in protecting communities, more work remains, according to Sayles.
“There is additional legislation that we are working on and that we will be working on for a while to safeguard our community and the broader Pennsylvania community in an effort to do our best to make sure that events like the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue don’t happen to the Jewish community or any other community in Pittsburgh,” he said, including finding additional avenues for security funding and hate crime legislation. The Federation and its partners are also looking for “policy recommendations for gun violence prevention.”
Sayles expressed appreciation for the work of Butler, Frankel, Sen. Jay Costa (D-Forest Hills), House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Marshall) and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson County) “for all of their support and their work on this.” He also commended Wolf for his commitment to community safety.
“The Friday after Oct. 27 I was meeting with the governor when he visited the memorial and I know how personally affected he was by the shooting because I watched his reaction. He has been in our corner ever since, advocating for the safety and security of the Jewish community and we are really grateful to have him as a partner and an ally in this fight,” Sayles said. pjc
Additional reporting by Jesse Bernstein of the Jewish Exponent, a Chronicle-affiliated publication.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at