In the face of threats, lawmakers look to enhance Jewish schools’ security

Rep. Randy Fine

When considering whether to re-enroll their children in the Hebrew Academy of Tampa Bay, several parents expressed reservations to Sulha Dubrowski, the school’s educational director.

The parents were concerned about security following bomb threats at 167 Jewish community centers in 38 states since the beginning of the year, Dubrowski said.

“They feel more secure in a public school because their kids won’t be singled as Jewish,” she said. As a result, one family ended up disenrolling their child because of security concerns, according to school officials.

Dubrowski said Hebrew Academy, Tampa Bay’s only Montessori Jewish day school, was the target of a bomb threat in January 2016. Since then, it tightened security, but because of budget constraints she is unable to hire a security guard, a request parents have made.

She said she hopes to install gates around the entire school property.

In the coming weeks, as they negotiate differences in their rival spending plans, state lawmakers will decide whether to offer security funding for similar measures at Jewish day schools across the state.

Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, raised the issue when he filed HB 3653, which would have set aside $1.5 million to enhance security at Jewish day schools after learning of the recent rise of anti-Semitic threats.

That amount has since been lowered.

Since then, the Florida House of Representatives has lowered the funding for security to $254,491.

By contrast, the Senate budget has allocated $500,000 for Jewish day schools, at the behest of Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation.

Book

Fine said he filed the measure because of the rise of anti-Semitic threats. The funding would help pay for capital expenses that would make school buildings more secure.

“This is a community I feel strongly about,” he said. “This wasn’t a difficult decision for me.”

He told the Florida House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee in March that Jewish students are afraid to come to school, with some even dropping out because of the security threats.

There are 55 Jewish day schools in the state of Florida, which serve nearly 10,000 students, according to Fine.

Dubrowski said she is concerned about the increasing number of threats.

“I am not sure if it is anti-Semitism or anti-Americanism,” she said. “I don’t know specifically what is causing it.”

Israeli police arrested a 19-year-old dual US-Israeli citizen on March 23 in connection with many of the bomb threats made at the majority of the Jewish centers.

The chief executive officer of the Anti-Defamation League expressed relief in a statement, but said anti-Semitism in the U.S. remains a very serious concern.

“No arrests have been made in three cemetery desecrations or a series of other anti-Semitic incidents involving swastika graffiti and hate fliers,” Jonathan Greenblatt said. “JCC’s and other institutions should not relax security measures or become less vigilant.”

Other states, like California, are also considering legislation to enhance security at faith-based schools.

Assemblyman Marc Levine, a Marion County Democrat, has filed Assembly Bill 927, setting aside $10 million to provide security at faith-based schools in the state.

“The problem is that while most public schools can afford security to protect the children, faith-based schools do not have the same degree of funding,” Levine wrote in the Sacramento Bee alongside retired basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Levine noted his legislation resembles proposals in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

In an emailed response to questions, Levine said: “California will prioritize protecting the children in our state regardless of what kind of school they go to.”

Asked why his bill is more important than ever and Levine cited statistics from the Southern Poverty Law Center showing the number of hate groups growing to 917 in the United States.

There were 892 hate groups in 2015.

Rabbi Moshe Matz, executive director of Agudath Israel of Florida, said he does not believe there are greater risks today than in the past. But he thinks enhancing security for Jewish schools in Florida is important.

“Security for our schools is definitely something that is needed because Jewish schools and all Jewish institutions are considered high targets in terms of potential terrorist threats,” he said. “I feel that even though we are talking about Jewish institutions, it is something that affects the community across the board. I think having all institutions have protection and update their security would be beneficial to everybody.”

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