Several Jewish community organizations and synagogues, including three in western Massachusetts, will receive funding under a $4.1 million program to improve physical security measures against what officials call the threat of “terrorist and hate-motivated attacks”.
The grants were announced Wednesday by Governor Charlie Baker at the Fourth Annual Faith-Based Organizations Safety and Security Seminar in Southbridge.
“Protecting our Commonwealth means protecting the organizations that are the backbone of our communities,” Baker said in a statement. “We are committed to ensuring that these nonprofit organizations and places of worship are protected and that everyone can feel safe as they gather and pray.”
The event was hosted by the Commonwealth Fusion Center, a division of the Massachusetts State Police that acts as the lead agency for investigating criminal activity, threats to public safety and terrorist activity.
Thirty of the 37 recipients are organizations and groups associated with the Jewish faith, including Brandeis University at Waltham, a non-sectarian college founded in 1948 by American Jewry.
Funding amounts range from $21,000 to $150,000.
Four of the recipients are based in the Pioneer Valley. Hillel House at the University of Massachusetts will receive $150,000, Temple Beth El in Springfield will receive $149,871 and Amherst Jewish Community will receive $21,300.
Funding for the grants came from the US Department of Homeland Security’s nonprofit Security Grants Program and was administered by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety.
The recipients were selected after a review determined the organizations were “at high risk of terrorist attack or hate crime”, officials said.
Ziva Harmatz, second vice president of the Amherst Jewish Community Center, said the funding was appreciated, but she declined to elaborate on how it will be used.
Harmatz, who oversees security issues at the community center, said in previous conversations with security consultants, they always advised against “going into detail” about security precautions.
The grant application, she said, was “based on a threat assessment that the Amherst police did for us.”
The center has become more concerned with safety and security in recent years as incidents of anti-Semitism and hate crimes at home and abroad have increased over the past 5 years.
In Amherst and parts of Pioneer Valley, the most common problem is vandalism, she said. But recent events elsewhere in the past few years have caused members of the congregation to be more alert to the possibility of threats.
She mentioned during the conversation an incident in January where a a man took four people hostage in a synagogue in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs while demanding the release of a convicted terrorist. The hostages all escaped unharmed while the suspect was killed.
She also mentioned the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where 11 people died and six were injured by a gunman who shouted “all Jews must die”. The suspect will be tried in April.
Closer to home, a 37-year-old man from East Longmeadow was sentenced in February to 5 years in prison after trying set fire to a Jewish nursing home in 2020.
Thursday, the The FBI office in Newark, New Jersey tweeted that he “has received credible information about a broad threat to synagogues” in that state and he urged individuals to remain vigilant as he investigates.
“The number of hate crimes has increased dramatically over the past 5 years,” Harmatz said. “We try to be aware and proactive in the measures we take.”
She said members of the congregation were not afraid, but there was an understanding of awareness in the current climate.
The Anti-Defamation League, a New York-based international nonprofit organization dedicated to combating anti-Semitism and violence against Jews, reports that there have been more than 2,700 reported incidents of antisemitism in the United States in 2021.
The amount is the highest amount on record since the organization began keeping records in 1979. It is also 600 cases more than the previous record set in 2019.
In Massachusetts, the ADL said there have been 87 reported incidents of anti-Semitism in the past three years, including most recently where swastikas were left on the lawn of a Jewish family in Stoneham. and drawn in a college in Sharon. September 11th, several people in Saugus hung a banner on a highway overpass promoting a conspiracy theory that Jews were responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The fourth Western Massachusetts organization to receive a grant is Greenfield’s Friends of the Franklin County Fairgrounds in Greenfield, the fundraising arm for the Franklin County Fair. He will receive $50,000.
Mike Nelson, president of the fairgrounds, said it was a community facility with no religious affiliation. The money will be used for the installation of a public address system which will increase public safety by allowing staff to communicate information to customers in the event of an emergency.
While there are no specific, known threats to the fairgrounds, Nelson said it’s a place where crowds gather, making it a potential target for an active shooter, for example.
“Adding this public address system will allow the fairgrounds to immediately alert the public of a threat and direct them to safety,” Nelson said. “In the event of an incident, this tool for real-time communication with customers will undoubtedly save countless lives.”
The fair is also concerned about inclement weather, and Nelson said past fairs have had to deal with sudden thunderstorms, microbursts and mudslides.
“In all of these events, we had no way to communicate with the public and tell them where to go,” he said.