Few Synagogues Damaged by Sandy Have Received FEMA Help

Congregations Reopen But Expensive Repairs Are Needed

Hard Hit: 70 synagogues like Temple Israel were hit hard by superstorm Sandy. Only two have received FEMA relief funds to rebuild.
Hard Hit: 70 synagogues like Temple Israel were hit hard by superstorm Sandy. Only two have received FEMA relief funds to rebuild.

By Seth Berkman

Published May 04, 2013, issue of May 10, 2013.
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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.

The funding comes at an opportune time for West End. Original estimates of damages were about $1 million, but they have gone up to about $1.5 million, according to Susan Greenbaum, the synagogue’s project manager. Since February, services have been held in a trailer in the synagogue’s parking lot. But Greenbaum said that by the end of May, the main building’s nursery school, social hall and bathrooms should be operational again.

Like West End, other synagogues continue to make do with temporary arrangements. At Beth El in the Queens neighborhood Belle Harbor, worship and office work are still taking place in a trailer. The synagogue’s original estimate for repairs was about $100,000. That estimate now stands at $500,000. The congregation hopes to return to its main building in the summer, but costs continue to rise.

Some synagogues, facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs, waited months for a response from FEMA, only to be denied. Rabbi Levi Gurkov of Long Island’s Chabad of Oceanside said his congregation originally incurred $500,000 in damages from the storm and that costs are increasing. “There’s more corroding of pipes,” he said. “Salt water takes a while to eat it up.” Chabad of Oceanside also has yet to receive any insurance payments. Gurkov said he is still arguing with his company over what damages should be covered.

Others turned to the community to help rebuild. Stacey Eager-Leavitt, president of Long Island’s South Baldwin Jewish Center, said that when she was declined by FEMA, she “culled a lot of favors” from members and neighbors, such as carpenters and cleaners who could do recovery work.

Eager-Leavitt was critical of how the government is allocating disaster money. She recalled interacting with members of Project Hope, a FEMA-funded project that received more than $8 million in November from a grant by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Project Hope employs trained counselors to provide information to Sandy victims, but Eager-Leavitt found the results to be negligible.

“Money could go better to what’s needed instead of paying these people to find out and tell us we can’t get anything,” Eager-Leavitt said. “There’s a lot of people still dealing with this storm.”

Others who applied for FEMA aid have yet to hear a decision, including Congregation Ohav Sholom, Chabad of Manhattan Beach and Temple Israel of Long Beach. For Rabbi David Bauman, leader of Temple Israel, the wait has been befuddling: His congregation had estimated damages of $5 million. Currently only the upper level of the building is being used.

Last October’s storm has caused Bauman and his congregation to re-evaluate their future. That includes reconfiguring their building, but also perhaps preparing for smaller accommodations. “It’s very difficult to take a guess of where we are,” he said. “A lot of it is, simply, what’s the nature of our population? The demographics in general are not what they were 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago, so it’s a smaller community to begin with.

“Sad as it is, it’s a chance to re-evaluate and serve our community best by looking at demographics.”

Rabbi Jonathan Muskat of Young Israel of Oceanside also has not yet heard from FEMA, either. He said the storm has nevertheless allowed his congregation to make needed upgrades. While original damage estimates ranged from $200,000 to $400,000, Muskat said the number is closer to $500,000 now. But he also noted that a successful fundraising campaign has helped tremendously.

“The main sanctuary is still under repair, but the reason is, we’re taking the opportunity to make it nicer,” he said. “We could’ve been back by now.”

Fundraising efforts elsewhere have not gone as well. At the Howard Beach Judea Center, the building suffered about $100,000 in damages and has received no help from the center’s insurance company. A FEMA application was denied. Lisa Mason, assistant director and assistant teacher at the center’s preschool, said congregants haven’t been able to donate money because they are still trying to get their own houses and lives back to normal.

Other synagogues have used fundraising efforts to help members first instead of their own buildings. Rabbi David Bibi of the Sephardic Congregation of Long Beach joined with other local synagogues to form a Jewish Community Assistance Program. So far they have collected and distributed about $1 million to residents of Long Beach. The aid included payments for contractors to work on houses, and the purchase of such items as new beds and appliances for families.

Although his synagogue was turned down by FEMA, Bibi said he received calls regularly from FEMA representatives asking for help in reaching out to families.

As for his own congregation building, Bibi says it’s a struggle. He doesn’t expect to be able to collect donations from his members for a year. “I run to Brooklyn and Manhattan and have become a beggar,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll get through the year.”

Contact Seth Berkman at berkman@forward.com

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