UJA-Federation of New York and other Jewish agencies are helping synagogues damaged during Hurricane Sandy to apply for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, even though the government agency currently bars grants to houses of worship because of concern that such aid may violate the First Amendment.
Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said the O.U. was still discussing the details of classification with the Department of Homeland Security, but the government was “advising synagogues and other houses of worship to apply, so once we work it out the issue won’t be, ‘We didn’t file.’”
FEMA’s concerns stem from the Constitution’s prohibition on government aid to religion. But Ed Conley, a FEMA spokesman, said certain not-for-profit institutions that provide essential public services, such as schools or homeless shelters, are eligible for aid even if they are affiliated with a religious institution. He did not know if any synagogues had filed for aid yet. The agency, Conley said, was still in an emergency response phase.
“Right now, the focus is primarily on lifesaving and life-sustaining measures and not so much looking at restoration,” he said.
Still, with a December 30 deadline for not-for-profit institutions to apply for FEMA assistance in New York, UJA-Federation is encouraging any synagogue that suffered damage to submit the forms.
Yisroel Schulman, president and attorney-in-charge of the New York Legal Assistance Group, which is providing pro bono services to synagogues referred by UJA-Federation, said his organization has been holding workshops and one-on-one sessions on how to submit FEMA applications.
“What’s not under the current definition is synagogues,” Schulman said. “If they’re a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, we encourage them to apply. We argue [that] critical charitable work should be covered.”
Conley said that a synagogue acting as a homeless shelter wouldn’t necessarily be eligible unless it had documentation that it had operated as one before the hurricane.