State awards $1.1 million grant to help secure Jewish Pittsburgh
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State awards $1.1 million grant to help secure Jewish Pittsburgh

Shawn Brokos: "This grant will be a significant contribution to better secure our organizations.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Photo by Adam Reinherz
The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Photo by Adam Reinherz

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh welcomed the new year with word that a $1.1 million grant had been awarded by the state of Pennsylvania to assist with security upgrades in the Pittsburgh Jewish community.

The grant comes from the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program. The Federation is required to match that $1.1 million grant, bringing the actual amount of community security funding to $2.2 million.

The Federation applied for the state grant in August, although Federation leaders had been talking with government officials for months prior to that about ongoing security needs in the Jewish community, said Shawn Brokos, Federation’s director of Jewish Community Security.

The amount of funding sought by the Federation was derived from security assessments of community facilities following the massacre at the Tree of Life building. With the assistance of donor funding, the Federation was able to help community institutions with immediate requirements such as access control and alarm systems, but additional funding needs remained. The new grant will help cover costs associated with target hardening.

In January 2019, conversations about the Pittsburgh Jewish community’s security began among Brokos’ predecessor Brad Orsini, Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Federation, and state legislators. Orsini and Finkelstein had the opportunity to walk several legislators through the Tree of Life building after the massacre, which “had a tremendous impact and really enforced the need to have additional security in the Jewish community,” Brokos said.

“It’s been a long process,” Brokos continued, citing trips to Harrisburg by Federation leaders, and a January 2020 trip to Israel with Finkelstein, then-Community Relations Council Director Josh Sayles and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.

Federation leaders do not yet know when the Federation will receive the grant money, or what the parameters are concerning how it can be used, said Brokos.

“We are still waiting for those details,” she said, adding that a meeting is scheduled for later this month with state officials at which time Federation leaders will learn more information.

“The notion, though, is that these funds will really be used to make structural upgrades, access upgrades, control system upgrades, reinforce glass and the physical elements we need to make to better protect our organizations,” Brokos said.

Finkelstein said he was able to speak with legislators about security needs throughout the process and addressed those needs with Wolf during their joint trip to Israel. A trip to Harrisburg with members from the three congregations targeted during the Oct. 27, 2018, shooting also was important, he said.

“I think the legislators and the governor have been very supportive of doing something specific for the Pittsburgh Jewish community,” Finkelstein said.

Advocacy of several state legislators was key to securing the grant, said Laura Cherner, director of the Federation’s Community Relations Council.

“A couple of legislators really went to bat for us and were really supportive,” she said.

State Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny) and state Sen. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) were among those who helped secure the grant. While pleased with the funding, Frankel said he was saddened by the need for it.

“I don’t think we ever thought that we would face an environment in which our community had to protect itself against terroristic threats from anti-Semitic individuals and groups,” Frankel said. “This is something that goes well beyond our Jewish community. Between the AME Church in Charleston, the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, mosques in New Zealand, there is clearly a pattern that makes these groups particularly vulnerable. It’s a shame. I never thought it would come to this in Squirrel Hill, in our Pittsburgh Jewish community.

“We need to be prepared,” he continued. “This will be of significant assistance to our community. I’m thrilled Senator Costa supported this as well.”

“No one should have to worship in fear,” Costa said in a prepared statement. “Our First Amendment rights protect the freedom to practice any religion we choose, and we should be protected during that practice. These safety grants are an important step, but we’ve got more work to do in expanding our hate crimes laws here in Pennsylvania.”

Finkelstein agrees that the work to secure Pittsburgh’s Jewish community does not end with this grant. He pointed to a $5 million fund — now in its second year — for nonprofit security in the state of Pennsylvania, and the Homeland Security grant program, lobbied for by the Jewish Federations of North America.

“There’s always more that can be done when it comes to security,” Finkelstein said. “I think we will continue to try to get more grant money from state and federal sources as well as from the very generous foundation and donor community here in Pittsburgh.”

Securing the Jewish community is a work in progress, said Brokos. This grant, she said “will be a significant contribution to better secure our organizations.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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