US synagogues face skyrocketing security costs. Rabbis call it an 'antisemitism tax.'

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US synagogues face skyrocketing security costs. Rabbis call it an 'antisemitism tax.'
A member of the New York Police Department patrols in front of a synagogue on October 13, 2023 in the Williamsburg neighborhood in the borough of Brooklyn in New York City. Security has increased in New York City in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel and after a former leader of Hamas called for Friday the 13th to be a global Jihad day.Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
  • Synagogues require heavier security as antisemitic incidents surge during the Israel-Hamas war.
  • As congregations pay the price, rabbis call the increasing security costs an "antisemitism tax."
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In the wooden pews of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue in New York City, next to the prayer books and Bibles, laminated sheets detail instructions for an active-shooter scenario.

"What do I do in an emergency?" the placards read in bold, red letters. Directives include "Proceed quickly and quietly to the nearest exit," "Follow instructions from synagogue staff," and "Do not panic."

The burden of his congregation's safety weighs heavily on Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, Kehilath Jeshurun's senior rabbi.

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"You become a rabbi to teach, to inspire, to bring forward all of the teachings of Judaism," he told Business Insider. "And now, instead of being a rabbi, I'm doing something very different. I'm a community organizer; I'm a security expert. I'm now worried, not so much about the souls of my congregation, but about their bodies."

The 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh — in which 11 worshipers were killed and seven injured, making it the deadliest attack on Jewish people in US history — brought ever-present fears about synagogue safety to the forefront. These concerns have escalated amid a sharp spike in antisemitic incidents in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war, with the Anti-Defamation League reporting a nearly 400% increase in antisemitic incidents year over year since October 7, when Hamas launched attacks that killed about 1,200 Israelis.

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The antisemitic incidents in the US include harassment, vandalism, and assault, but the fear of more violent, armed attacks looms large in Jewish spaces, forcing religious leaders to further fortify their places of worship.

The increased security costs amount to what some rabbis are calling an unsustainable "antisemitism tax" draining their communal resources.

US synagogues face skyrocketing security costs. Rabbis call it an 'antisemitism tax.'
Mourners gather outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh after a gunman opened fire during services on October 27, 2018, killing 11 and injuring seven.Gene J. Puskar/AP

The cost of antisemitism

The Israel-Hamas war has sparked widespread protests and increased incidents of antisemitism and anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias. According to FBI hate-crime statistics, Jewish people are still the most targeted religious group in the US.

Experts attribute the recent surge in antisemitism to people wrongfully equating the actions of the Israeli government with all Jewish people and institutions.

"A lot of people don't have a very sophisticated understanding of antisemitism," said Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T'ruah, a Jewish organization mobilizing rabbis and cantors to protect human rights in the US, Israel, and Palestinian territories. "Because Israel is, obviously, a Jewish country, sometimes people who are angry at Israel about the war in Gaza and about the occupation and about the killing of Palestinian civilians, beyond protesting Israel as a country the way you would protest any country, also have been targeting Jewish institutions. And that is absolutely antisemitism, holding all Jews responsible for the actions of the Israeli government."

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Because of this constant targeting, Jewish institutions like synagogues operate differently than most religious organizations.

US synagogues face skyrocketing security costs. Rabbis call it an 'antisemitism tax.'
NYPD officers respond to a bomb threat at Central Synagogue in Manhattan on November 11.Theodore Parisienne/New York Daily News/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Rabbi Daniel Bogard of St. Louis, an adjunct professor at a local Christian seminary, said he can simply walk through the front doors at the seminary. But at his synagogue, Central Reform Congregation, he does not have that luxury.

Bogard said that even casual synagogue gatherings now require the heightened security of larger events, citing the monthly family-friendly singing circles he hosts as an example of how quickly those costs add up.

"It's a great free program. It costs us nothing to run. Except now all of a sudden, it's going to cost, I don't know, $400 in security costs to do it," he said. "And that means if I want to run this program once a month, I've got to find almost $5,000 to cover security to do something in our own building. It's wild. And that's what I mean when I say that it's unsustainable."

In New York, Steinmetz said that Kehilath Jeshurun spends "multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars" annually on security assessments and upgrades. The synagogue has turned to congregants to foot the bill, charging a security fee of $250 per family as part of membership dues, an increase from past years. Even with 1,150 families paying the fee, the amount doesn't fully offset the cost of keeping congregants safe.

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Steinmetz and Bogard refer to this strain on communal resources as an "antisemitism tax," quantifying the financial and emotional burden of the vigilance required for a Jewish organization to function in America.

"If there is a population in the United States that feels that they're under attack, it's the responsibility of the government to ensure that they feel safe and secure and to ensure that they are not attacked," Steinmetz said. "It should not be passed on as a private responsibility."

US synagogues face skyrocketing security costs. Rabbis call it an 'antisemitism tax.'
A security guard stands watch in front of a synagogue on October 9, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.Eric Thayer/Getty Images

'The gap between the need and funding is profound'

Federal funding subsidizes some synagogue-security costs, but rabbis say it's not enough to meet the growing need.

The Nonprofit Security Grant Program, administered by the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, awards grants of up to $150,000 for nonprofit organizations at risk of terror attacks, including houses of worship, to spend on "physical security enhancements" such as bulletproof windows.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who was held hostage by a gunman in his Texas synagogue for 11 hours in January 2022, told lawmakers in a congressional hearing a month later that "the gap between the need and funding is profound."

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With synagogues diverting more resources to security, rabbis have found that other community-building initiatives are losing funding.

"If there's $150,000 that is going to security, that's definitionally $150,000 that's not going to any other things," Bogard said. "It's not going to pay for youth programs. It's not going to pay for education. It's not going to pay for equitable salaries for our employees. It's not going to pay for social-justice work.

"There's other positions that would exist at our synagogue and in our office if we weren't paying for security. There's huge amounts of Jewish communal dollars that would be available that instead go to security. It's constant, and it's increasing."

US synagogues face skyrocketing security costs. Rabbis call it an 'antisemitism tax.'
A Miami Beach police patrol drives past Temple Emanu-El synagogue in Miami Beach on October 9.Marco Bello/AFP via Getty Images

Balancing community and safety

A visible police presence can reassure synagogue members nervous about the current atmosphere. Bogard has started including a note saying "security will be present" on Central Reform Congregation's programming flyers to encourage attendance.

But it can make synagogues feel closed-off and inaccessible, particularly for members belonging to groups that police violence has disproportionately affected, such as people of color and transgender people.

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Reverend Lauren Ahava Jacobs, a Jewish interfaith minister and the cochair of the social-action committee at Manhattan's Romemu congregation, was volunteering at the synagogue food pantry days before the building was vandalized with a swastika and other white-supremacist symbols on November 21. She said the synagogue immediately tightened security measures, and while such precautions are essential, they can also hinder the congregation's outreach work.

"The true cost is communal in the sense that when we, or any group, perceive a sense of hate or resistance to our presence, the tendency is to fold inward, when instead what I wish we would do is look for our allies," she said. "It doesn't mean it's not scary, but my instinct is not to hunker down — it's to reach out and see where the love already is."

US synagogues face skyrocketing security costs. Rabbis call it an 'antisemitism tax.'
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 22: Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza performs an acoustic set to offer support for Israeli families in the New York City area at B'nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side on October 22, 2023 in New York City.Noam Galai/Getty Images

Jill Jacobs said that while synagogue security is certainly a necessity in today's world, antisemitism can also be fought comprehensively through training, education, and relationships with other communities — by breaking down walls instead of building bigger ones.

"I don't want to diminish the need for security. It's real," she said. "And also, ultimately, you can't protect yourself by just building a fortress around every Jewish institution."

Balancing physical safety with fostering welcoming, financially sustainable organizations remains an ongoing challenge for Jewish spaces — one that becomes more difficult with every swastika scratched into a synagogue door.

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"We livestream our services — this is a pandemic and post-pandemic thing," Bogard said. "And I remember the person who runs our stream, a few years ago, turned to me and said, 'I live in fear that I'm going to end up livestreaming our mass murder.' That one has haunted me."

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