Community centers, religious schools and other institutions at risk of hate crime threats have an opportunity to receive grant money to improve security. New York State has set aside $25 million in its budget for those grants.
The Anti-Defamation League reports that so far this year, anti-Semitic incidents including threats to people, centers and vandalism to property including grave sites have increased by 86 percent. The FBI reports that hate crime attacks against Muslims increased from 154 in 2014 to 257 the following year. The FBI says hate-related attacks have also increased against the LGBT community, especially toward transgenders.
State Assemblyman Sean Ryan appeared at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Buffalo on Delaware Avenue to announce that Albany has set aside $25 million to fund a grant program, to which centers like the JCC may apply for financial assistance to upgrade security.
"It's for day care centers, it's for religious institutions, any institutions that we think are at threat of being attacked or being subjected to hate crimes," Assemblyman Ryan said.
"We want to improve lighting in parking lots. We want to improve our camera systems,"said JCC executive director Richard Zakalik. "We're looking for a system to notify our members and the community when there is a problem, to stay away or where we've taken our kids."
The JCC in Buffalo was one of numerous Jewish centers that received a bomb threat earlier this year. It was found to be a hoax, and a suspect was arrested in Israel. Zakalik notes that the local center hosts numerous services open to people from all walks of life. There's a day care program, gym and pool and other activities hosted inside the facility. An attack on their center was seen not just as one against members of the local Jewish community but against all.
"Generally, if the Jews are being attacked, we're just the first in line," Zakalik said. "Think about Nazi Germany. It started with the Jews but that's not where it ended. There were five million others that were also murdered by the Nazis."
For members of the Muslim community, the portrayal of their faith by some media circles only furthers their worry. Tehniyet Azam, associate executive director of WNYMuslims, says they do get hate mail but through their own outreach, they've fostered more understanding and support among the community.
But she welcomes the opportunity for centers to seek funding, if desired, to boost their security.
"I think it's an amazing thing for all the religious minorities and LGBTQ community to have a very secure environment, that will also let other people come to our schools, community centers, and they will feel welcome because they know it will be secured," Azam said.
The challenge though, as Matthew Crehan Higgins of the Pride Center of Western New York sees it, is achieving safety without compromising a hospitable environment.
"The last thing I think that anyone in this field or any kind of center would want is to create such a situation that felt so safe and secure from a structural standpoint that the people didn't want to go there," said Crehan Higgins, who is the Pride Center's senior director. "I think it's an evolving process."
The competitive grant program will be administered by the state's Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services.