CDC’s ‘social vulnerability index’ is added to Homeland Security grant applications, threatening grants to communities that are suburban. Under the new rules, the synagogues in Pittsburgh, Poway and Colleyville would have been unlikely to receive grants.
Synagogues and schools that fear terrorist attacks in New York and New Jersey have told The Jewish Link that their grant-acquistion efforts this year will likely result in fewer Jewish institutions receiving the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) funding for which their communities have advocated in large numbers.
Individuals applying for grants on behalf of their institutions have told The Jewish Link that the grant form reflects these changes by weighing information from applicants this year differently as opposed to previous years. Out of just a 40-point application total, institutions that have not previously applied for the grant also receive 15 points, and groups with a high “social vulnerability index (SVI)” will be awarded 15 points. Last year there were no points allocated for SVI, which, some argue, is better aligned with the purpose of the application.
Social vulnerability is a number designed to award grants to communities with disadvantages like poverty and extreme disaster probability. According to the Centers for Disease Control website, which created the SVI and bases it on the most recent census (in this case, 2018), social vulnerability “refers to the potential negative effects on communities caused by external stresses on human health. Such stresses include natural or human-caused disasters, or disease outbreaks. Reducing social vulnerability can decrease both human suffering and economic loss.” SVI appears to be higher in urban centers with high crime, or sparsely populated areas with few economic resources and limited job availability. The SVI is public and available on the CDC website: https://svi.cdc.gov/map.html.
The Orthodox Union (OU) and Agudath Israel of America are just two of many religious institutions of all faiths, with the Catholic church as a major partner, that have advocated for sizable increases in NSGP awards in recent years, with runaway success. The Jewish community is particularly engaged with this grant, with the aim that synagogues, schools and institutions can “harden their targets,” and thus be more protected against the alarming and increasing rise in antisemitic, terroristic threats directed specifically at Jewish communal sites over the last several years.
“It's definitely going to make an impact,” said Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of the New Jersey office for Agudath Israel of America. “Terrorism and anti-terrorism security concerns can happen in the most affluent of neighborhoods. In fact if you look at the firebombing incidents in East Rutherford [multiple antisemitic firebombings in three locations, in January 2012], that was a pretty serious event. East Rutherford would not fall under the category of social vulnerability.
“It's sort of missing the entire purpose of the grant which was to protect synagogues, and in fact all houses of worship, wherever they are. Adding this ingredient into the mix and giving this significant advantage to institutions which are not at significant risk of terrorism creates a problem that we have to work on,” Rabbi Schnall added.
“In 2021, New Jersey set record highs for antisemitic incidents; the New Jersey and Federal Nonprofit Security Grant Programs were created to combat this resurgence of domestic terrorism,” New Jersey Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) told The Jewish Link. “Utilizing the CDC’s social vulnerability index to determine security needs ignores potential threats to our local Jewish institutions. There is no doubt that the social vulnerability index is an important metric; it is not a fair or accurate determinate for security funding. As the original creator of the nonpublic school security grants, I am hopeful that the federal government will immediately update the criteria for determining allocations.”
“The United States remains in the midst of a dangerous rise in domestic extremism. As we saw in Colleyville, Texas, that extremism tragically is aimed at synagogues and other houses of worship,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ). Many Americans do not realize that our faith-based communities do not often have enough resources to provide security to their members. This is where government must step in: to protect people who just want to practice their faith without threat of a bomb or a gunman. If one synagogue is not safe, then no churches, mosques, or temples anywhere in America are fully safe,” he told The Jewish Link.
“Our houses of worship, including our synagogues, should not be put at a disadvantage to receive federal resources to protect from terrorist attacks. The social vulnerability index, which now has an increased weight in the application process, does not accurately determine the risk of a terrorist attack to a nonprofit," said Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ). "This whole program is about fighting against antisemitism, hate, white supremacy, and ISIS-inspired lone-wolf terror. It is about making sure that our churches, our synagogues, and our mosques are safe, and that religious institutions and our freedoms — which are so deep at the heart of who we are — are protected. I’m calling on FEMA and DHS to immediately revert to last year’s scale, which had no points allocated for the social vulnerability index," Gottheimer told The Jewish Link.
The NSGP makes grants to individual institutions in the amount of $150,000, for target hardening against terrorist attacks, including vehicle ramming attacks, active shootings, detonation of concealed explosive devices and intrusions. The funding includes fencing and bollards, blast-resistant windows, security-grade doors, camera, access control and alarm systems) or security personnel. Security consultants have advised The Jewish Link that it takes a large institution at least two grant rounds to build a fully functioning security system, particularly if the synagogue or school has never had one, and often a third grant is required to assure effectiveness. The grant can also be used to pay for 24 hour in-person or camera-based offsite security services.
The size of the Department of Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program, administered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), has grown immensely in recent years, from awarding just $20 million in grants in 2016. Nathan Diament, the OU’s executive director for public affairs, focused on the fact that this year’s $250 million in grants represents a stratospheric rise over last year, which granted $180 million in fiscal year 2021. He also mentioned a letter signed this week by 161 members of Congress, buoyed by an effort led by Rep. Pascrell which asks the House Appropriations Committee to up that recommended number for 2023. “We are on the way to get it to what we have been advocating for, which is $360 million,” Diament told The Jewish Link.
While it is estimated that approximately 300 institutions from New Jersey’s urban areas, some of which were heavily Jewish, applied for NSGP grants last year, just 82 were awarded the grant, and they were all based in the “New Jersey/Newark area.” These 82 awards totaled $11,686,957. Diament argued that, reflexively, with more funding available, more organizations should get funded in 2022.
The FEMA website shares “key changes for FY 2022,” stating that although there is a $70 million increase in allocations over FY 2021, “Nonprofit organizations located within an underserved community will have up to 15 points added to their project review score. FEMA will use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) tool to determine each sub-applicant’s social vulnerability ranking. Sub-applicants in communities with a ‘High’ SVI ranking will receive 10 additional points, and sub-applicants in communities with a ‘Very High’ SVI ranking will receive 15 additional points,” it concludes.
Despite the new criteria for award and continued advocacy on behalf of funding increases, a very significant concern remains. If one considers the major attacks on synagogues in recent years in communities such as Pittsburgh, Poway and Colleyville, these places do not have particularly high SVI scores. The kosher grocery store that was attacked in the Greenville section of Jersey City in 2019 certainly would have presented with a high SVI, but it would not have been eligible for security grants because it is not a nonprofit. The SVI would strongly disfavor mainstream Jewish communities where professional vulnerability risk assessments have identified institutions at extremely high risk of terrorist attack.
DHS in Washington, D.C. and its state counterpart in New Jersey were both asked why an anti-terror/target hardening grant that is not designed to address crime in poverty-stricken areas weighs social vulnerability so heavily, when physical security is the biggest concern (and in some cases, the only existential concern) for religious communities in large population centers across the U.S. They were asked why the program would vastly disadvantage those where most antisemitic terror attacks have historically occurred. While the federal office had made no statement at press time, Maria Prato, director of communications for the New Jersey office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, provided the following statement to The Jewish Link: “The director is unavailable at this time. New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness is the State Administrative Agency for the federal nonprofit security grant program. Our role is to administer the program based on federal programmatic requirements. We remain committed to working to ensure the safety and security of New Jersey’s interfaith community. For further guidance on the social vulnerability index, we would have to refer you to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.”
Assemblyman Schaer added that he has worked at both the state and federal levels to increase the flow of security monies. He noted that currently each parochial school receives $175 per student in the state budget for security, and he believes it will be more for FY 2023. He said that there are also funds in the state budget for houses of worship to harden targets and that some of those funds are coordinated with the federal government. “I am working with my colleagues in the legislature to secure additional funds for the New Jersey Nonprofit Security Grant Program, increasing from $2.75 million to $5 million. Nonpublic school security funding will increase from $185 per child to $195 per child. Fully funding these programs and allocating resources through the Department of Homeland Security’s assessment is vital for protecting our communities. Our representatives, Congressmen Pascrell and Gottheimer, and Senators Menendez and Booker, have been indispensable in securing additional federal resources for New Jersey. Security funding has nothing to do with a social vulnerability index. It has everything to do with our children’s safety and security,” Schaer said.
Staff members for Reps. Gottheimer ans Pascrell told The Jewish Link they planned to contact DHS to clarify matters.
In an age of rising physical threats to Jewish people and institutions, it is known that terrorists do not necessarily choose their targets based on government indexes, but on the size and identity of the target, such as institutions being well attended on specific days of the week or calendar (Poway, Pittsburgh and Colleyville were all carried out on Shabbat or Yom Kippur) or being recognizably Jewish. Being socially vulnerable, it appears, is not the same thing as being actually vulnerable.