The 112th Congress’s failure to bring emergency disaster aid for New York and New Jersey to a vote before adjourning has left scores of synagogues and other places of worship — not to mention thousands of businesses and homeowners — in limbo following Hurricane Sandy.
“The word ‘unconscionable’ comes to mind,” said Rabbi Scott Hoffman of South Merrick on Long Island. “It was put aside, delayed and placed on the back burner.” Days before the Senate approved $60.4 billion in Sandy supplemental aid — only to see the House of Representatives stall the legislation until it closed — departing Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman prepared an amendment specifying that houses of worship were eligible to receive aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the same basis as other not-for-profit institutions. But the proposal failed to advance when the Senate invoked cloture rules that barred amendments to the bill.
Meanwhile, houses of worship remain ineligible for aid under FEMA’s current rules because of concern that funding their reconstruction would violate the Constitution’s ban on direct government support of religion. Jewish organizations, such as the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, have taken the lead in pushing the Department of Homeland Security to reconsider this prohibition.
The Forward has determined that 72 synagogues were significantly damaged by Sandy. On January 4, the new Congress passed a stopgap $9.7 billion supplemental aid bill for Sandy victims and is expected to approve another $50 billion by January 15 for homes and businesses damaged by last year’s October 29 hurricane. In 2005, it took Congress just 10 days to approve federal aid for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
Local religious leaders feel disillusioned by the lack of a decision on FEMA eligibility aid for their buildings, but also by Congress’s snail’s pace in acting to help their communities rebuild.
“Imagine those people whose houses are gone, who need the money to fix other things within the house and are waiting for federal monies — and now you push them off for another month?” said Steven Frohlich, president of Young Israel of Brighton Beach. “It’s terribly disappointing.”
Frohlich said his congregation was paying “an arm and a leg” for repairs to the synagogue building, but he was even more concerned about community members in need.
There are congregations that have estimated damages of more than $1 million, like West End Temple in Neponsit, N.Y.
“These are people that pay taxes and Congress’s salary, and now all these constituents are in need and they’re not coming through,” said Chabad of Oceanside’s Rabbi Levi Gurkov. “It’s heartbreaking. It boggles the mind.”