Jewish Schools Adjust Security as Israel-Gaza War Stokes Fears

Reuters/File photo
The White House is pictured in Washington D.C., on October 31, 2004.

Across the country, Jewish schools are rushing to fortify themselves as the Israel-Gaza conflict leads to new threats amid an existing surge of religious-based attacks in the United States. School leaders, fearing attacks on civilians in the Middle East will motivate violence in the United States, are hiring security officers, restricting access and revamping their safety plans – and drawing on their cash reserves for much of it.

In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., leaders at Brauser Maimonides Academy are increasing security.

“We’re now on high alert,” said Rabbi Yoni Fein, head of the Florida school. The campus of more than 400 students has not been directly threatened, but some families and staff are fearful as antiwar protests break out across the country. “There’s definitely been an increased level of anxiety.”

At SAR Academy in New York, officials have tapped grants to pay for private security, said Rabbi Binyamin Krauss, the school’s principal. The school of 1,700 students also relies on a squad of off-duty police officers.

Krauss said parents have been grateful for the heightened security presence, especially after a former Hamas leader called for a “day of rage,” the standard call for demonstrations by the militant group, on Oct. 13. “They want to feel and see presence and we’re trying to provide that.”

Paul Bernstein, founding chief executive of a network of Jewish day schools called Prizmah, said a “small number” of campuses chose to close their doors last week. “The announcement of things like a day of rage, that we have now heard several times, just makes people more concerned.”

At least two of those closed schools were in the D.C. region. Leaders at Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School, one such campus and the sole Jewish day school in the nation’s capital, have been in “constant communication” with local and national law enforcement since Israel declared war against the militant group Hamas, officials said.

The unease follows several tense months for Jewish and Muslim Americans. The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks anti-Jewish hate, reported this year that antisemitic incidents in “non-Jewish K-12 schools” – which includes assaults, harassment and vandalism – increased 49 percent between 2021 and 2022.

The White House, referencing FBI statistics, said this week that Muslim Americans “continue to be overrepresented among” hate-crime victims. The Maryland office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national civil rights group, is fielding a surge of complaints and requests for help from Muslim and Arab students facing harassment and intimidation at school and online, officials said.

“In this politically charged environment, many Muslim and Arab students feel increasingly vulnerable and targeted because of their diverse identities,” said Zainab Chaudry, the office’s director.

At the center of these communities are Jewish and Islamic schools, which enroll more than 300,000 students in the United States. Unlike public schools, these institutions are tuition-dependent and rely heavily on state and federal grants to fund security upgrades.

In public schools, most security costs are already baked into the budget, said Daniel Mitzner, director of government affairs for Teach Coalition, which advocates for public funding for Jewish institutions and private schools. But for faith-based institutions, “it’s something that you have to ask for.”

Mitzner added that “in the last couple weeks, with the horrific incidents in the Middle East, we’ve been getting a lot of requests – for not just help in applying and accessing existing funds, but also what we can do to get more available.” Many schools want to hire more security, which tends to be the most expensive safety-related cost, he said. Leaders are also considering upgrades such as new surveillance cameras, alarm systems and blast-proof doors and windows.

“While certain states and the federal government have been generous with funding, there’s certainly a need for more,” Mitzner said. “There’s always a need for more.”

The increased security needs have placed a financial strain on schools. Even with public grants, Brauser Maimonides Academy has spent “in the hundreds of thousands” of dollars on security upgrades, Fein said. At Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, N.J., there is some concern that security costs may reduce funding for other needs.

“In times of crisis, we need to reallocate funds to ensure that we have security on our campus that will meet . . . unfortunately, the rising and alarming rate of antisemitism in this country,” said Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, who serves as head of school. “But the important thing now is to think about our safety and then, as the atmosphere calms, we see how we have to reallocate or budget cut in order to meet our budget.”

Like other campuses, the New Jersey school has hired additional security and is depending on a heavier presence from local police. Meanwhile, the school is growing – several Israeli families who have temporarily relocated to the area have enrolled their children.

“We have state-of-the-art electronic surveillance,” Rubin said. “We’re able to lock down our campus when necessary.”

Elsewhere, in the Bay Area, one Islamic school is trying to keep a “low profile” over fears of being targeted, said its longtime principal who asked to remain anonymous to protect the school’s privacy. Following the fatal stabbing of a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy in Chicago and an alleged attack on a Muslim woman in Burlingame, Calif., “parents have been extremely concerned, including a lot of our staff members as well,” she said.

Parents have asked for additional security and have offered to front the cost, according to the principal. Some want armed guards.

So far, the school has done neither, the principal said. Rather, officials are striving for as little visibility as possible. After publicly raising money recently for earthquake victims in Morocco and flood victims in Libya, they decided to limit fundraising efforts for Palestinian victims of Israeli attacks to the school’s small community.

“We’re not doing anything wrong, but the community is just so afraid people are going to misunderstand what we’re doing,” she said. “That’s really sad that we have to do that.”