Portman Seeks Funds for Synagogue Security in Wake of Shootings

Editor’s Note: This story was updated from its original version to include comments and information from the Jewish Community Center’s Rob Elston, as well as Sen. Rob Portman’s letter to the Jewish Community Center.

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Security concerns aren’t heightened in the wake of Saturday’s shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, but the security chief at the Jewish Community Center of Youngstown expects the center would benefit from additional resources being sought by U.S. Sen. Rob Portman.

Portman, R-Ohio, in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, urged “swift action by the Senate to provide resources to synagogues and other nonprofits … that are vulnerable to acts of terrorism.”

The senator met with area Jewish leaders at the Jewish Community Center this morning to express his condolences in the aftermath of Saturday’s shooting at the Tree of Life temple in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

While in Youngstown, Portman also held a roundtable on tax reform and workforce issues with 20 local business leaders at the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber. He discussed the visit to the Jewish Community Center and efforts to improve synagogue security during a meeting with Business Journal editorial staff.

One of two amendments to the Department of Homeland Security Authorization Act that Portman co-authored would provide synagogues and other nonprofit organizations access to Federal Emergency Management funding currently available only in certain metropolitan areas. Specifically, it would require 30% of the Nonprofit Security Grant program to be distributed outside the Urban Area Security Initiative metro areas.

The provision to provide the grant money for faith communities is part of a broader homeland security bill now stuck on the Senate floor.

“It would provide places like the Jewish Community Center and the other synagogues that were represented this morning to have the opportunity to get a grant and get additional training to deal with security issues,” Portman said.

“It’ll open up dialogue between law enforcement as well as faith-based facilities such as ours, but it will also provide good situational awareness as well as real world training that would help secure our facilities,” said Rob Elston, campus security coordinator for the Jewish Community Center of Youngstown

Elston oversees security issues for the center, the Heritage Manor nursing home and the Levy Gardens assisted living center, and works with three local synagogues and cemeteries.

“I don’t know that our concerns are any more heightened than they have been in the past,” Elston said. “We always like to be proactive in our security measures.”

Following the wave of school shootings, schools are receiving training that puts everyone on the same page in terms of proactive and reactive actions, he said. “There’s no reason that our facilities as well as other faith-based facilities shouldn’t be on the same page as that, with the same training and the same protocols,” he said.

“In light of the horrible tragedy in Pittsburgh, we have to move this part of the legislation, at least,” Portman said this morning. “If we can’t move the whole bill, I’d like as a special request … to pull out that section and at least that section in the House and Senate.”

The other amendment to the bill would ensure nonprofits have “a seat at the table” for joint anti-terrorism awareness workshops, forums where regional stakeholders can receive information to help them assess community threats.

Additionally, Portman penned a letter Tuesday to members of the Jewish community outlining this and other efforts on its behalf, including a March 2017 letter signed by all 100 senators urging the U.S. attorney general, DHS director and Federal Bureau of Investigation director to take action in response to bomb threats made against Jewish community centers, schools and synagogues.

“I consider it to be my job and the job of every elected leader to speak up against hate, bigotry and anti-Semitism wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head,” he wrote.

Portman noted that led a May 2017 letter calling for the president to appoint a special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, a U.S. Department of State position that has been vacant for two years.

“I look forward to continuing our work with our Jewish community to ensure we are doing all we can to protect our facilities across the state of Ohio and across the country,” he wrote.

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