Aid to Sandy-Hit Synagogues Splits Jewish Lawmakers, Community Down the Middle

Shuls Need Help, But Some Cite Church-State Separation

Separation of Sandy and Shul: The superstorm did massive damage to synagogues including this one on Long Island. But the Jewish community is deeply divided on whether the federal government should provide aid to houses of worship, Sandy or no.
courtesy of temple israel of long beach
Separation of Sandy and Shul: The superstorm did massive damage to synagogues including this one on Long Island. But the Jewish community is deeply divided on whether the federal government should provide aid to houses of worship, Sandy or no.

By Seth Berkman

Published February 21, 2013, issue of March 01, 2013.
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When Congress lingered in approving additional federal funding for communities affected by superstorm Sandy, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, forcefully criticized the delay. But when the House of Representatives voted recently to allow houses of worship to apply for federal aid after natural disasters, Nadler vehemently opposed the move.

Nadler said he sympathized with the synagogues, churches and mosques damaged during the storm but did not believe that federal taxpayer dollars should be used to repair religious institutions.

The bill, which would classify houses of worship as private not-for-profit institutions eligible for disaster aid, passed by a vote of 354–72. It now moves on to the Senate, where it could face staunch opposition. Advocates of the bill see it as a no-brainer, given the extent of the damage from the storm, which affected 72 synagogues in the New York area. Critics say the bill raises questions about the separation of church and state. They even claim that such legislative aid is unconstitutional.

UPDATE: In reversal, ADL backs aid to synagogues hit by Sandy

The legislation has led to a contested debate among leading Jewish organizations, which universally agree on the exceptionality of Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the Jewish community but differ on how far they are willing to relent on their principles of separation of religion and state. A number of Jewish organizations were instrumental in working with Congress members to create this legislation, but longtime partners have taken different stances in this case. For example, the American Jewish Committee supports the bill, while the Anti-Defamation League is troubled by it.

On the floor of the House just before the vote, Nadler spoke for the critics when he said the legislation was being rushed to a vote. It was as if they were naming a post office, not addressing a law that has potentially serious constitutional implications, he complained.

“This bill should be subject to hearings in the Judiciary Committee, with input from constitutional scholars, and due consideration of these significant constitutional issues, before we take such a radical step,” Nadler said.

The issue has clearly divided Jewish lawmakers, with 14 House members supportive, and 8 opposed. Henry Waxman, the Democratic congressman from California, voiced has approval. “This bill helps these facilities gain access to emergency resources,” Waxman said. “Disasters don’t spare houses of worship; we shouldn’t exclude them from the recovery.”

Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said the legislation presents the latest phase in the debate between two different understandings of the First Amendment.


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