Wagner Memorial Park vandalism

{span}This swastika and other symbols of hate were painted at Wagner Memorial Park in Manchester last fall just two blocks from Temple Adath Yeshurun. {/span}

As churches and other religious institutions face the potential of future threats and attacks, seven New Hampshire worship communities have received federal funding to help improve safety and security.

Leaders at the churches and synagogues named last week as recipients of the grant funds agree that safety and security at houses of worship are an issue and an unfortunate reflection of the times.

“It’s sad,” said Bob Bersak, president of Temple Adath Yeshurun in Manchester. “We’ve got better things to do and more important things to do than to have to worry about security and safety of the people who are using our programs.”

The Reform Jewish synagogue is one of the seven institutions to learn last week that their applications for the funding through the Nonprofit Security Grant Program had been approved. Bersak said he’s still waiting on specific details, including how much money the temple will be getting and any restrictions on how it can be spent.

The temple is about two blocks from Wagner Memorial Park, where last fall swastikas were found spray-painted on the gazebo and a monument — the same weekend a gunman opened fire at a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 people.

The Department of Homeland Security recently awarded more than $4 million to the state to help address foreign and domestic terrorist threats, in addition to $150,000 to seven New Hampshire houses of worship through the Nonprofit Security Grant Program.

The other recipients were Bedford Presbyterian Church, Bethany Congregational Christian Church in Greenland, First Congregational Church in Littleton, Chabad of New Hampshire in Manchester, Temple Adath Yeshurun in Manchester, Temple Beth Abraham of Nashua and the Etz Hayim Synagogue in Derry.

The Rev. John Sawyer, co-pastor at Bedford Presbyterian, said his church wrestled with the idea of applying to the Department of Homeland Security for the funding, but ultimately decided in favor of it, based on events that have happened at churches, synagogues and mosques elsewhere.

As a person of faith who stands in front of a church in a robe and collar each week, Sawyer said he is very mindful when hearing the news of violent attacks on places of worship. He said it also reminds him of his own mortality and the safety of his parishioners and their families.

“We don’t feel like we should have to think about this stuff, but we want our church to be a safe place where everyone feels welcome,” Sawyer said.

Bedford Presbyterian recently finished raising money for its capital campaign and has revamped almost its entire building. The additional Homeland Security money will be used to enhance those recent renovations.

The church didn’t wait for the federal government to provide money to address security, but has implemented other measures on religious holidays and has worked with the Bedford Police Department, according to the pastor.

Bersak said security has become a recurring topic at Temple Adath Yeshurun’s board meetings. Like Sawyer’s church, the synagogue also had to think hard before applying for the federal funds, which Bersak said was a time-consuming, detailed process.

“To the extent of spending time and money and resources doing these kinds of things, we can’t deal with our core mission, which is much different than building a fortress,” Bersak said.

Bersak said the temple learned its application had been approved in a call last week from the office of U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., the ranking member of the Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management Subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

“As domestic and foreign terrorists alike target places of worship, malls and other gathering places, it’s sadly more important than ever that community organizations have the resources they need to mitigate the impact of an attack — and that local and state law enforcement have robust infrastructure to prevent and respond to attacks,” Hassan said in a statement heralding the money to be spent on security.

This is the first time that New Hampshire institutions have received assistance through the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, according to a news release.

“Nothing is more important than the safety and security of our families and neighbors,” Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., said in a statement, “and these federal funds will help secure vulnerable facilities and local law enforcement will have the resources and training needed to keep people safe.”

Union Leader reporter Doug Alden contributed to this report.

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