The Battle for Safe Schools

Amid rising anti-Semitism, what is the government doing to keep our children safe?

Unless otherwise noted, photos courtesy of the Katz Hillel Day School of Boca Raton, in Florida.

By Nechama Carmel

On an unusually warm day in late February, Shari Dym, an administrator at Silver Academy, a Jewish day school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, went into emergency mode. When the alarms went off in Silver Academy, Shari and her colleagues knew it was not a drill because they had just put the students through an evacuation drill the week before.

This time it was real.

Someone had called in a bomb threat to Silver Academy. Over the next two minutes, Shari and her colleagues evacuated 200 students.

“The fear is something that I will never be able to explain to anybody who hasn’t lived through it,” Dym says. “You can never think that this is just a hoax, because you don’t want to be around the day that it’s not.”

Silver Academy is not alone.

In 2017, more than 160 Jewish schools and community centers around the country received bomb threats. While these incidents turned out to be the isolated hoax of one individual, they came amid a flurry of increased anti-Semitic activity in the country. Defiled cemeteries, swastika graffiti on subways and college campuses, and a growing white supremacist presence have sparked a new wave of concern across Jewish communities. According to a report recently released by the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents rose by 86 percent in the United States in the first three months of 2017, with 541 attacks and threats between January and March—compared to 281 incidents in the same time period in 2016.

While expressing relief that the perpetrator was caught, Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive officer of the ADL, warned in a statement that “JCCs and other institutions should not relax security measures or become less vigilant.” Anti-Semitism in the US, he said, remains a very serious concern.

With Jewish day schools considered “high risk” for attacks, many schools—especially those located in urban centers—are focused on security. “In today’s world, lockdown drills at Jewish day schools are almost as prevalent as fire drills,” says Michael Buchman, chief investment officer at the Hilton Foundation and a community activist in Los Angeles.

Making Strides in Washington
But while school security has become an even more pressing issue in recent months, the topic has been on the OU’s agenda for years. In the aftermath of 9/11, the OU Advocacy Center, the non-partisan public policy arm of the OU, along with other coalition partners spearheaded the creation of the federal Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP). Under the NSGP, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) awards grants to schools, synagogues and other nonprofits to enhance the security of their buildings.

“In 2001, we saw the rise in threats against the Jewish community and understood that making our facilities more secure for all who use them would cost a considerable amount of money,” says Nathan J. Diament, executive director of OU Advocacy. “That’s why we spearheaded the coalition to create the federal NSGP and fought to ensure it would provide grants to day schools and synagogues—an aspect of the proposal that, at the time, was opposed by some.”

Since the NSGP began in 2005, the DHS has awarded more than $200 million in NSGP grants to nonprofit institutions including more than 1,000 Jewish schools and shuls. Each nonprofit can receive as much as $75,000 to make its building more secure. The funds can be used for installing fencing, lighting, video surveillance, metal detectors, concrete barriers and other security measures.

For vulnerable Jewish institutions across the country, the grants have been critical.

Remarkable as it may seem, prior to 2013, nonpublic schools in New York State received zero state dollars in security funds.”

“The first thing you need in a country, in a school, in a building—is to feel safe,” says Rabbi Allen Schwartz of Congregation Ohab Zedek on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “Thanks to the grant that we were fortunate enough to receive, we feel safe.”

“Every year since it was first created, we work intensively to ensure that this critical program receives sufficient congressional funding,” says Diament. The program provided $20 million in grants in 2016. Recently, Congress passed a budget deal that included $25 million in federal security grants for the 2017 budget year. Amid the surge in attacks across the country against Jewish facilities ranging from cemeteries to synagogues, OU Advocacy is working to increase the funding level even more in the 2018 fiscal year.

New York State Takes the Lead
Soon after the Sandy Hook massacre that claimed the lives of twenty children and six teachers, OU Advocacy launched the Teach Advocacy Network. One of its primary goals: to make schools safe for every child. “Unfortunately, security is not a new concern for Jewish institutions,” says Allen Fagin, OU executive vice president. “Around the world, Jewish schools, houses of worship, and community centers have always been targets of terror. But since the Sandy Hook shooting made school safety a national priority, it made it easier for us to advocate for serious security funding.”

With a presence in six states, the Teach Advocacy Network relies on a nationwide network of lobbyists, dedicated lay leaders, partner schools and devoted grassroots volunteers to advocate for government funding of nonpublic schools and do whatever it takes to make sure Jewish schools have the resources they need to keep their students safe.

Council Member Mark Levine (speaking), chairman of the New York City Council’s Jewish
Caucus, stands alongside [from left] Council members Andrew Cohen and David Greenfield at a Teach NYS press conference at City Hall, March 2014.

While only in existence for four years, the Teach NYS office, the largest of the Teach Advocacy Network, already delivered approximately $150 million in state assistance last year to Jewish schools across the Empire State.

“Remarkable as it may seem, prior to 2013, nonpublic schools in New York State received zero state dollars in security funds,” says Maury Litwack, executive director of the Teach Advocacy Network.

Teach NYS made a compelling argument: New York nonpublic schools educate some 400,000 students but receive less than two percent of state education funds, including security funding. Don’t all students deserve to be safe regardless of the type of school they attend?

The argument resonated with lawmakers and Governor Andrew Cuomo. When the Legislature passed the SAFE Act in 2013, Teach NYS lobbied to include nonpublic schools, with an initial allocation of $4.5 million in security funds, or $10 per pupil. In 2016, Teach NYS successfully advocated for increasing security funding to $15 million, or $30 per pupil.

This year, Teach NYS went one step further. In an historic move, Teach NYS brought 600-plus students, teachers, parents, rabbis and lay leaders to Albany to meet with Governor Cuomo and various legislators to impress upon them the need for greater security funding as well as other funding for nonpublic school students.

“This was the largest delegation to Albany of yeshivot and Jewish day schools and quite possibly the largest Jewish delegation ever,” says Litwack.

Not surprisingly, the historic mission had a tremendous impact. Addressing the group, Governor Cuomo promised support, stating that he had given religious schools . . . “more money than ever before in history.” “We did that last year,” said the governor. “And we’ll do it again this year, where we propose even more funding than ever before for the religious schools.”

The governor was true to his word. The New York State budget for the 2018 fiscal year allocates almost $300 million in nonpublic school funding, including an unprecedented $40 million for nonpublic school security, a 166 percent increase over last year’s allocation. “This is the largest security allocation for nonpublic schools anywhere in the country,” says Jake Adler, Teach NYS policy director.

“The OU and its supporters pounded the pavement in Albany for months, and Governor Cuomo and the New York Legislature responded to our urgent request with a record-setting security grant for nonpublic schools,” says OU President Mark (Moishe) Bane. “All children deserve to go to schools in a safe environment.”

“We are extremely thankful to the New York Legislature and Governor Cuomo for responding to the security concerns in the Jewish community, but there are many more schools that need help,” says Fagin. “Our goal is to replicate our success in New York across the country.”

OU Advocacy called on other state legislatures to follow New York’s lead, and the victory has inspired Jewish education activists around the country to work even harder. “The success in New York is not limited to New York; it’s a model we can export and use in different states,” says Buchman, co-chair of Teach CA.

Game-Changing Legislation
At the city level, there’s been significant progress as well. Thanks to the efforts of New York City Councilman David Greenfield and two years of intense lobbying spearheaded by OU Advocacy with an array of partners, New York City became the first city in the country to pass legislation that provides children in nonpublic schools with the same protection as their peers in public schools. Councilman Greenfield championed the new provision, known as Introduction 65-A, which provides nearly $20 million for nonpublic schools to hire licensed security guards to protect their students. “It took years to get the Council to vote on Introduction 65-A and for the mayor to sign the law,” says Councilman Greenfield. “By the time we passed the law, we had forty-five out of fifty-one Council members signed on as sponsors. That’s not a coincidence. It was due to the hard work of the OU and Teach NYS that worked with us hand in hand to get this done.”

Once New York City passed this groundbreaking legislation, school administrators, concerned parents and even some members of the media were elated. “Kudos to the mayor and to the speaker for doing the right thing—and to the key group that pushed this bill, the Orthodox Union,” wrote the New York Post in an editorial shortly after the bill passed.

The legislation has already sent security guards to sixty-four yeshivot at absolutely no cost to them, and many more schools are going to be added next year, according to the Councilman. “We now have over 50,000 yeshivah students protected in New York City,” he says. “I think every city should have a law like ours that provides free security guards for nonpublic schools. Children everywhere deserve safety, no matter where they go to school, simply because they are children.”

From Coast to Coast
With offices in states including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Florida and California, the Teach Advocacy Network serves “close to 90 percent of the American Jewish day school world,” according to Litwack. Its strategy is deceptively simple: in each state, the Teach Advocacy Network builds a strong and dedicated team of lay leaders who are committed to promoting government funding of nonpublic schools. Recognizing that each state legislature is influenced by its own local politics and culture, the Teach Advocacy Network connects leaders and activists in each state with top lobbyists and strategists to draft legislation specific to their needs and circumstances. Lay leaders cultivate relationships with public officials, bring legislators to Jewish schools to visit with administrators and students, and create coalitions with local Jewish day schools, federations and other allied stakeholders to fight for equity through greater government funding for nonpublic schools. Below, we provide a snapshot of the Teach Advocacy Network’s efforts for each of the states.

_________________Fighting for Security—State by State_________________

The Keystone State
Not long after Teach PA was established in 2013, it conducted an informal survey of Jewish day schools in the state. “We discovered that while their chief concern is tuition affordability,” says Arielle Frankston-Morris, director of Teach PA. “Second on the list is security. Unfortunately, the cost of keeping a school safe is prohibitive.”

In 2013, Teach PA created and helped pass the Safe Schools Legislation that allows schools to use that funding for security personnel. Other security grant programs, such as the Homeland Security Grant, can only be used for the purchase of “target hardening equipment” (i.e., security cameras, fences, et cetera). Currently, there is no allocation in Pennsylvania for enhancing the security of school buildings. The Safe School grant entitles recipients to $40,000 the initial year for a “school police officer,” $20,000 the second year, and zero dollars the third year. The following year, they are allowed to reapply for the grant. “Unfortunately, this is not a sustainable program,” says Frankston-Morris. “From year to year, schools are unable to budget for a security guard.”

And while many schools and synagogues in the state are eligible for federal security money, the national dollars have their limits. The money cannot be used to hire security guards, and schools like Silver Academy in Harrisburg do not qualify for the federal funds because they operate outside of an urban center. “What about the Jewish schools in Allentown, Scranton and Harrisburg?,” asks Frankston-Morris. “They are equally as vulnerable to anti-Semitism and terror attacks as day schools in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.”

For now, Teach PA has two priorities with regard to security funding: to work with the Legislature to expand the Safe Schools program to include long-term security funding for security personnel and to ensure day schools receive funding necessary to make their buildings safe.

“Without the proper funding for security equipment or a guard, schools are vulnerable,” says Frankston-Morris.

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The Garden State
Determined to address the security needs of New Jersey’s more than 41,000 Jewish day school students in 170 schools, in 2015 Teach NJS helped create the first new funding line in the state budget for nonpublic school students in more than two decades.

Last year, the state provided $50 per child in security funding for nonpublic school students. In 2016, Governor Chris Christie signed a bill, sponsored and championed by Assemblyman Gary Schaer of Passaic, that provided $75 per child in the 2017 budget. This year, Teach NJS, a partnership of twenty-one Jewish day schools and two federations across the State of New Jersey, ratcheted up its efforts, urging Governor Christie and the New Jersey Legislature to increase security funding to $144 per child for all nonpublic students in the state—thereby creating parity with public schools. As of this writing, however, the budget for 2018 has not yet been released, and it is uncertain how much money will be allocated.

“When you put your child on the bus in the morning, you need to feel confident that he or she will be safe and secure,” says Ariella Noveck, director of grassroots operations, Teach NJS.

“Every child, regardless of the school he or she attends, has the right to a safe learning environment,” says New Jersey Assembly Budget Chairman Gary Schaer.

It’s very painful to be aware of what the security standards are and to know that your school falls short because it cannot possibly afford to implement them.

Intensifying its efforts, Teach NJS brought Jewish day school parents to testify before the State Assembly and Senate Budget Committees this past March to impress upon them the very real threat facing Jewish day schools. “When Teach NJS asked me to take time off in the middle of a work day to testify before the Assembly Budget Committee, I jumped at the opportunity,” says Erik Kessler, director of operations at The Moriah School in Englewood. “As a school administrator and a father of three children, this was the most important thing I could do for my students and kids.”

In his testimony to the committee, Kessler highlighted the urgency of this fight. “At my school in Englewood, located less than three miles from the George Washington Bridge, nearly 1,000 people a day pass through our gates. Our proximity to New York City, as well as the size of our fourteen-acre campus, makes us a target.”

Over the next couple of months, while the New Jersey Legislature hammers out the details of the state budget, Teach NJS is determined to make sure the collective voice of its community members is loud and strong. “Government has a responsibility to protect all of our students—no matter which kind of school they attend,” says Nathan J. Lindenbaum, co-chair of Teach NJS. “We are cautiously optimistic that Governor Christie and the legislature won’t leave our children stranded.”

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The Sunshine State
Thanks, in part, to the efforts of Teach Florida, Florida boasts the largest tax-credit scholarship program in the country (some 2,400 Jewish day school students in the state receive scholarships); however, the state did not provide any funding for security for nonpublic school students.

Until now.

Over the past few months, Teach Florida worked with Senator Lauren Book (D) and Representative Randy Fine (R) to draft legislation that would provide funding to upgrade security at nonpublic schools; subsequently, it spearheaded advocacy efforts for its passage. As we went to press, we learned that the Florida state budget will be allocating $645,000 to enhance security in nonpublic schools.

“This is the first allocation of security funding for nonpublic schools in the state of Florida,” explains Mimi Baron Jankovits, executive director of Teach Florida.

Dr. Leon Melnitsky, volunteer chairman of the Security Committee at Brauser Maimonides Academy in Fort Lauderdale, works closely with Teach Florida and has spent years researching and implementing security standards and protocols for the school. But for Dr. Melnitsky, the issue of school security is not theoretical. In 2016, James Medina, a convert to Islam and a resident of Hollywood, Florida, planned an explosive attack on a synagogue in nearby Aventura that was thankfully thwarted by the FBI. That incident, among others, helped to focus attention on what Dr. Melnitsky had been fighting for all along. “We face threats that are unique to the Jewish community,” he says. “It’s clear that the threats are out there. But it’s very painful to be aware of what the security standards are and to know that your school falls short because it cannot possibly afford to implement them.”

Calling the new legislation “a tremendous achievement,” Dr. Melnitsky is grateful to the OU for its forward-thinking approach to solving the problems facing Jewish day schools. “Teach Florida gives us the means to protect our children,” he says.

“We have made tremendous progress with the help of Teach Florida in pushing through the legislation for funding. And there’s no doubt in my mind that this legislation will help save lives.”

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The Golden State
Currently, nonpublic schools in California receive zero state dollars to keep their children safe.

Teach CA co-chair Michael Buchman is determined to change that.

In recent months, Teach CA helped draft AB 927 with Assemblyman Marc Levine to establish a $10 million grant to provide security at nonpublic schools. Thanks to Teach CA’s rallying efforts, including Buchman’s testimony before the Assembly Judiciary Committee, the bill is working its way through the legislative process.

“We were looking at what was going on in the East Coast [with regard to funding for nonpublic schools], and said ‘why not do it here?,’” says Buchman. While admitting that they are just at the beginning and it’s an “uphill battle,” Buchman says, “the fact that this has been done elsewhere gives us a framework and more importantly, gives our local government a paradigm to look to.”

With the help of the Teach Advocacy Network, Buchman organized a group of community leaders as well as a coalition of Jewish day schools in the state committed to seeking change. He also began working on building a broader coalition comprised of other faith communities—including private Muslim schools. “It doesn’t make sense for the Jewish community in California to do this alone,” he says. In fact, Teach CA found an ally in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, NBA legend and Muslim activist, who called on California to support this proposed legislation.

The fact that the bill was drafted and is moving forward has “galvanized the Jewish community, and is building a sense of excitement,” says Buchman. “There’s a lot of Jewish advocacy on the national level, especially as it relates to Israel, but outside of the tri-state area, organized Jewish advocacy efforts on the state level don’t really exist, certainly not in California. This is uncharted territory and we are excited about the potential for what we can achieve.”

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The Old Line State
For Jewish schools in Maryland, security is not a new issue. “Because of our proximity to Washington DC, our schools and synagogues have always been focused on security,” says Sam Melamed, a community activist and the co-chair of Teach MD. But despite the fact that the state is considered high-risk for a terrorist attack, it never provided security funding for nonpublic schools.

A new security grant bill will change that.

“Most of the yeshivot and day schools in the state hire their own guards,” says Melamed. “But it’s a significant expense and a difficult burden that we feel is unfair to bear. The state and county should be responsible for the safety of all schoolchildren.”

Known as HB 1161, the bill, introduced by Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk and Senator Roger Manno, awards security grants to private schools and day care centers deemed “at risk of hate crimes or attacks because of their ideology, beliefs or mission.” What’s more, the bill allows schools to use the funds for security guards as well as to make their buildings more secure. “It was important for us to include language that would allow us to fund security guards, which is a huge expense,” says Melamed.

Teach MD and Maryland Parents for Education, a partner organization of the Teach Advocacy Network, drafted the legislation and led the effort to secure the passage of the bill. Yehuda Neuberger, co-chair of Teach MD, testified before the Maryland Senate Education Committee about the need to ensure the safety of all children. While the bill does not specify a dollar amount, Melamed is confident that the governor will make security a priority in his budget. “The important work of shepherding the bill through the legislative process has been done,” he says, still marveling at the fact that the bill passed because a small group of school leaders and activists cared to make it happen.

Melamed, the CEO of an insurance trust who had no experience in advocacy prior to joining Teach MD, has become somewhat of an advocacy maven in his local community. Four years earlier, Melamed attended a Teach Advocacy Network symposium in Washington DC where representatives from other states presented their accomplishments in securing government funding for nonpublic schools. “It blew my mind when some of the speakers reflected on the fact that years earlier they didn’t even know if they lived in the city or the county, or who their representatives were. And now they are the ‘go-to people’ in their communities when it comes to political issues,” says Melamed. “That convinced me that we could make a difference in Maryland too.”

“What I heard at the symposium was true,” he continued. “It’s amazing how quickly I learned about the political process, how accessible and responsive our public officials are, and how impactful we can be when we get involved.”

The Power of Grassroots: Making It Happen
The story of the Teach Advocacy Network—which is still in its infancy—is a story about advocacy. But it’s also a story about the power of community.

The historic victories achieved in New York—and indeed all of the Teach Advocacy Network’s successes in recent years—are the result of years of hard work on the part of schools, parents, teachers, administrators, lay leaders and community activists around the country. “The Teach Advocacy Network is essentially a grassroots effort,” says Adler, Teach NYS policy director.

The number-one question I would get from politicians is, ‘Where are the people?’ If this issue really is so burning, where are the people?’

“Our lay leaders and activists spent months making endless phone calls, sending e-mails to local legislators, and hosting meetings in their communities,” says Litwack, executive director of the Teach Advocacy Network. “All of these big and small steps contributed to this historic budget in New York. We have community leaders working with rabbis, board members of schools and parents in each community, taking responsibility and saying, ‘I believe that we can make this happen.’ Teach NYS was founded with the idea that if we really apply ourselves, we can make something happen.”

One of the ways the OU reaches community members is through its vast network of shul rabbis, who are attuned to their congregants’ most pressing concerns. “These rabbis hear about the struggles of affordability every day,” says Rabbi Yehuda Friedman, OU associate director of Synagogue Services and director of Long Island/Queens region. “They motivated their congregants to come to Albany and be heard.”

Shortly after Teach NYS was founded, when it would organize missions to Albany, some fifteen or twenty people would show up. This presented a huge challenge. “The number-one question I would get from politicians is, ‘Where are the people?,” says Litwack. “If this issue really is so burning, where are the people?’”

The politicians were, of course, right. Indifference, Litwack says, does not lead to results.

“I heard the governor say that politics is a zero-sum game—you’re either at the table or you’re not. We needed to show up at the table,” agrees Cal Nathan, a member of the Teach NYS Executive Board.

Recent Teach NYS ad that appeared in various national Jewish publications.

“I’ve worked in politics for a long time, and politicians listen when you make your voice heard,” says Litwack. “The question we need to ask ourselves is, are we ready to get involved? Are we ready to step up in a meaningful way?”

Many yeshivot and day schools are acknowledging that change is inevitable. The financial model that had worked for the Jewish day school community for decades is no longer sustainable. “The schools see the writing on the wall,” says Morris Tabush, a Brooklyn parent and a member of the Teach NYS Board. “Something has to change.”

“Change doesn’t happen overnight,” Fagin adds, “but our efforts in legislatures across the country show what is possible when communities demand their fair share. We will not cease our advocacy efforts until every child, whether he is educated at a public, private or parochial school, is provided with equivalent security services. But the fight for our children’s safety requires the active efforts of everyone in our community. The more people get involved, the more we make our voices heard and the more successful we will be.”

“The recent mission to Albany, which drew some six hundred people, finally opened a lot of people’s eyes to the fact that government funding is a real option for them, that it represents a real opportunity,” says Tabush. “The mission was a key point in getting our communities on board. If we can get 600 people in 2017, there’s no doubt we could get 6,000 in 2018.”

Nechama Carmel is Editor-in-Chief of Jewish Action.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2017.