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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

“According to one side, it requires a strict separation, and Jews have frequently favored that interpretation, although it doesn’t exactly say that in the First Amendment,” Sarna said. “They have often believed that the more government is separate from religious institutions, not giving them aid and not concerning themselves with religious institutions, the better it would be for religion generally and for minority faiths in particular.”

The other argument, according to Sarna, is that the First Amendment aims “to ensure that government doesn’t favor one religion over another.” An example is the placement of religious symbols in public areas during the holiday season, as long as all religions are represented.

Three months after the October 29 storm, Congress finally approved an aid package for the affected states. It will ultimately total $50 billion. But even before money was allocated, leaders from a broad range of Jewish groups, including the Orthodox Union, the Jewish Federations of North America, the New York Board of Rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly and Agudath Israel, had already begun pressuring Congress to amend the law that makes houses of worship largely ineligible for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Groups like UJA-Federation of New York advised synagogues to apply for FEMA aid, particularly if they provided essential public services, such as schools or homeless shelters, institutions that are eligible to receive aid.

Yisroel Schulman, co-founder, president and attorney-in-charge of the New York Legal Assistance Group, told the Forward last December that organizations involved in critical charitable work should be covered; however, such labels would not be necessary if the current bill passed, as it would include buildings “without regard to the religious character of the facility or the primary religious use of the facility.”

It’s an amendment to the FEMA law that has received bipartisan support in the House. New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn also wrote a letter to FEMA recently, saying, “Churches, synagogues and mosques serve as a bedrock for our citizens and our communities,” and that recovery from a natural disaster “isn’t a matter of state sponsoring religion.”

But Rabbi David Saperstein, director and counsel of the Religious Action Center, disagreed, saying that the bill “clearly raises issues on separation of church and state.”

“It’s government funding religious institutions and their buildings,” Saperstein said. He also echoed Nadler’s notion that the bill was rushed through the House. “We barely had time to focus on it in our office,” he said. “I hope the Senate will take time to look at this very carefully before moving into a constitutionally problematic area.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.