Six months after Hurricane Sandy damaged at least 72 synagogues in New York and New Jersey, only two report having been approved for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a Forward spot survey indicates.
The need for such aid does not appear to have abated. Though many congregations have cleaned the debris and are reopening their doors, others face repairs that will take months to complete amid mounting costs and limited resources.
The disbursement of FEMA aid to synagogues remains a controversial issue. The federal government’s interpretation of the First Amendment currently leads it to view government funding of religious institutions, even for disaster aid, as prohibited.
Shortly after the storm, though, FEMA representatives and organizations that were lobbying the agency, led by the Orthodox Union, encouraged synagogues to apply. In February the House of Representatives approved the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013, which would enable houses of worship to receive FEMA funding. The legislation remains mired in the Senate, where it has yet to go to a vote.
In total, 20 synagogues said they had applied for FEMA aid. (Many didn’t apply, believing that they were ineligible.) Chabad of Sheepshead Bay, in Brooklyn, reported receiving $7,000 from FEMA, about 10% of the $70,000 to $80,000 in damages the synagogue incurred during the storm. Its rabbi, Shlomo Cohen, said his insurance company refused to cover any of the costs because his policy didn’t provide coverage for flood damage.
The other synagogue to get approval for FEMA funding was West End Temple, in the Rockaways area of Queens. The synagogue received notice of its success in April but still does not know how large the grant will be.
Prior to the hurricane, West End’s synagogue building served as a community meeting place and a school, and as a host to other events, and this helped its cause. Religious institutions can be eligible for aid if it is demonstrated that they have been providing essential, nonreligious public services.