Only the heartless wouldn’t sympathize with the plight of these synagogues. The flood waters of Hurricane Sandy soared 10 feet high in the building that houses Temple Israel in Long Beach, N.Y., destroying its library, a kitchen and classrooms. A month later, the Modern Orthodox synagogue still had no power or heat, forcing its rabbi to work from his home and car. Estimated cost of repairs: $5 million.
West End Temple, a Reform congregation in Neponsit, N.Y., is facing more than a million dollars in damages from the storm. Even small congregations like the one-room Chabad of Manhattan Beach are facing serious challenges, as entire walls had to be removed because of seeping mold.
As our Seth Berkman reports, all these congregations are applying for funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, hoping that the federal government will pay for repairs once flood insurance is exhausted. Only one problem: FEMA regulations do not allow houses of worship to apply for such relief. The congregations are appealing for the funds in the hopes that an ongoing lobbying effort, led by the Orthodox Union, will persuade FEMA to relax its rules.
A compassionate government ought to do this, don’t you think? How can it not? It is difficult, if not heartless, to argue that constitutional prohibitions against taxpayer monies going directly to religious institutions ought to apply in this case. Helping fellow citizens recover from a natural disaster like this historic storm ought to trump other concerns, so the argument goes.
But such compassion comes at a civic cost, even an abstract one. If these synagogues are allowed to receive FEMA funding, it would represent yet another example of federal money going to religious institutions — part of a gradual, subtle trend in the last decade or so. Some view this as a welcome recalibration after years of strict separationist interpretation by a liberal Supreme Court.
Others place this trend in a more worrying context, saying that such “neutrality” can actually endanger the distinctiveness so prized by religious institutions. If houses of worship are treated like other nonprofits, will that help religious life in America, or ultimately hurt it?