Tennessee’s state legislature passed two bills this year that will help make the state’s Jewish communities safer. The success is the result of a joint effort by the four Jewish Federations representing Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga and the relationships the groups fostered with the state’s legislators. “We would not have seen these results without the combined efforts of all the Jewish Federations in the state,” says Leslie Kirby, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville.
The nationwide rise in antisemitism is showing itself in Tennessee, and synagogues, schools, Jewish Community Centers, and other Jewish buildings are finding it necessary to beef up security measures. In acknowledgement of the need for increased funding for these efforts, the legislature approved $750,000 to cover the cost of security personnel for these locations. Steve Hirsch, chair of the Jewish Federation’s security committee, is pleased the House of Worship security grand funding was incorporated into the state budget for a second year. “This year's funding represents a substantial increase over last year. This funding represents an important supplement to the federal Department of Homeland Security’s Non-Profit Security Grant Program (NSGP), which monies can be utilized strictly for capital equipment.”
One of the co-sponsors of the budget amendment was Representative Ryan Williams (R-Cookeville). Williams is chair of the appropriations subcommittee and says legislation like this will go a long way to helping keep the Jewish community safe. “In a small community like mine, people really rely on this type of legislation.” He says the relationships between the legislature and the Federations is also a key component of helping to secure the additional funding. “The Federations have been great about helping to advocate and educate the legislature about the need in the community. With the growth in antisemitism in Tennessee, it is important we work alongside the Jewish communities and help support them.”
Another of the champions of the increased security funding was Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville). He points to the synagogue shootings that have occurred over the last several years as an example of why it is important to expand on the current Federal security funding. “The Federal funding doesn’t go far enough. In this state we place a lot of importance on being able to worship safely, and to go to school safely.”
Michael Dzik, Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, says the funding increase means his community will be able to access much needed dollars. “We are thrilled that the State of TN has again included increased security funding that our Jewish community can apply for through their grant process. It has become an unfortunate necessity that the Jewish community harden our facilities further. Equally, this funding allows for personnel costs, which is a huge asset for our Jewish community.”
Another focus for the Jewish communities this year was the passage of HB1193/SB848, which amends the statutory language for what constitutes a hate crime. The change broadens the nature of a hate crime from, “intentionally to recklessly or knowingly desecrating a place of worship or burial or a state or national flag.” Williams was the prime sponsor of the House bill. He says the change to the statute shows the House’s continuing support of the Jewish community. “The new policy is really a deterrent. Any time we can create that for the Jewish community, it’s a good thing.”
This year the state legislature faced some tough obstacles, as Briggs was quick to admit. “It was on the House side that things were challenging. But we are delighted we could show support for the Jewish community through the increased funding and the change to the hate crime statute.” And Dzik says, “Although a challenging process, our work with the legislature has been statewide and it warms my heart that Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis are all working together, in partnership, for the common good of our communities. I personally appreciate the work we are doing collectively. The impact is exponential as we work together.”