Taking Another Look at FEMA Aid


Help Needed: Synagogues affected by Hurricane Sandy are hoping to get federal aid.
Courtesy of Temple Israel
Help Needed: Synagogues affected by Hurricane Sandy are hoping to get federal aid.

Published March 08, 2013, issue of March 15, 2013.
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Since the Forward last weighed in on the contentious issue of whether federal money should go directly to houses of worship damaged by Hurricane Sandy, several things have happened.

The House of Representatives handily passed an amendment that would classify synagogues, churches, etc., as private not-for-profit institutions eligible for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, better known as FEMA. At the time of the Forward’s initial reaction — that the aid, while understandably needed, could dangerously weaken the cherished boundary between religion and state — Jewish groups were simply seeking a specific change in the federal regulation prohibiting FEMA from directly funding houses of worship.

Now the Congress has stepped in, which strikes us as a far more significant precedent, despite some protestations that this would be a one-time benefit to bereft institutions. The bill is now being discussed in the Senate’s Homeland Security committee before it comes to a vote.

The second thing that’s happened — to us, anyway — is the additional insight that time allows. The House pushed through this legislation with nary a public hearing, offering no opportunity to discuss a move that has serious constitutional implications. Fortunately in this case, the Senate is acting more deliberately.

And that makes us realize what a sticky wicket this bill invites. As the historian Jonathan Sarna recently told our Seth Berkman, if the bill becomes law, FEMA will be in a position to decide just what constitutes a house of worship. A private residence used by Chabad? A storefront chapel established only months before the storm struck last October?

“This particular law will require government to make very complicated decisions about what is and is not legitimate religious worship space,” Sarna noted. Do we really want the government doing that?

The third development is the prospect of alternatives to federal funding: private philanthropy. So, for example, the Isaiah Fund, the nation’s only interfaith investment fund dedicated to long-term recovery after natural disasters, announced on March 6 that it was loaning $1 million to low-income communities hurt by Sandy. The fund hasn’t decided where the money will go, but if faith-based institutions want to help their own without excessive entanglement by government, then they should step up and fill in the funding gap. That applies to the Jewish community especially, since many of the synagogues damaged by Sandy are in distressed neighborhoods without the resources of their wealthier brethren.

It may be that in the end, only the federal government has the means to truly help. But we find it ironic that Republicans who rail against the reach of “big government” so blithely ignore the pitfalls of inviting FEMA into the pews. And we find it troubling that Democrats who have benefited from the historic separation of religion and state are rushing to abandon that commitment. Congress should publicly debate this issue before taking a step we may one day regret.

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