With state grant funding, HPD provides increased security for city’s Jewish & Muslim congregations

An HPD presence outside the Beth El Congregation is part of a grant-funded initiative to prevent hate crimes in the city. Photo by Mike Grundmann.

Passing the parking lot of Beth El Congregation in Harrisonburg, when you see a city police car parked in the closest spot to the street, it’s not a random occurrence.

It’s for maximum visibility as part of a state-funded program to tighten security at the city’s Jewish and Islamic places of worship – a response to dangers posed by religious hatred nationwide and globally, especially since the Oct. 7 massacre of Israelis by Hamas and Israel’s subsequent war in Gaza.

With funding from the Combating Hate Crimes Grant Program of the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, the Harrisonbug Police Department is covering the cost of stationing off-duty officers in patrol cars “during active hours,” said Lt. Charles Grubbs, special operations commander.

The grant – totaling roughly $100,000 this year – also funds building improvements to “harden the target,” said Grubbs.

The mosque at the Islamic Association of Shenandoah Valley is another beneficiary of the grant.

The off-duty officers are typically stationed in the patrol cars and monitoring “suspicious activity or anything out of the ordinary,” Grubbs said. The officers are paid their overtime rate.

“The concept is deterrence,” said Beth El Rabbi Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner. “We’re not as soft as [any troublemakers] think we are.”

Grubbs and a Beth El official declined to make public specific details of the security upgrades funded by the grant.

There haven’t been any hateful acts against the buildings in recent years. In the case of Beth El, that would be “never in my tenure of three years,” the rabbi said. There was vandalism to the adjoining cemetery years before.

Abbas Rawoot, an IASV board member, recalled that several times, until two or three years ago, torn pages of a Koran were left littering the grounds of the mosque.

“Our maintenance man picked up every page and gave it to us,” Rawoot said.

The rabbi noted that none of the local demonstrations against the war in Gaza have devolved into anti-semitism. He noted that hateful acts will usually be committed “by someone outside a given community.”

“The reason we applied for [the grant] was everything going on across the country,” Grubbs said.

With anti-semitic and anti-Muslim acts steeply on the rise nationwide, the HPD applied for the grant in December and the spending began in February.

Patrol cars have been parked at Beth El before this year, and police have conducted crisis training several times, said trustee Ron Ornstein. That includes “Stop the Bleed” emergency first aid. “Obviously, we hope to never need these measures,” he said. He noted that synagogues across the nation have improved security in the last five years or so.

At the Islamic Association mosque, Rawoot laughed recalling a moment that Grubbs tested the building’s security.

“Charles, he could walk in in five minutes, even with the door locked.”

“It’s always a question,” Rawoot said. “The way we do prayer, when someone enters, we don’t turn around to look. Somebody could wipe us out in a matter of seconds.”

The mosque can draw up to 350 worshipers for midday prayers. Beth El’s congregation is roughly 75 families.

“We’ve maintained a good connection with the Muslim community,” said Kurtz-Lendner.

Rawoot said that was particularly important after Oct. 7. Beth El and IASV have partnered for decades to feed the homeless in the Open Doors program, and members and leaders of both congregations have attended each other’s services and spoken at them.

As for how the congregations feel about the new security measures, the rabbi said, “It’s a comfort to them.” Ornstein added, “It makes many feel more secure,” although “others may feel it’s too conspicuous.”

“They’re more comfortable,” Rawoot said of the IASV congregation. “It’s a great feeling that police work with us.”

Mike Grundmann is a retired JMU journalism professor who previously worked as a reporter and editor for eight California newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. He has produced 10 award-winning documentaries.

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