After Sandy, Bill To Allow FEMA Disaster Aid for Synagogues Remains Stalled

Senate Fails To Act as Damaged Houses of Worship Struggle

Interfaith Help: Christian volunteers pitch in to help clear debris from the badly damaged Russian American Jewish Experience in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.
Courtesy of Third day missions
Interfaith Help: Christian volunteers pitch in to help clear debris from the badly damaged Russian American Jewish Experience in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

By Seth Berkman

Published July 20, 2013, issue of July 26, 2013.
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On a recent Friday afternoon in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, groups of teenage girls headed toward the ocean as shirtless men on boardwalk benches sent occasional catcalls their way and children walked by licking ice cream cones.

For much of this seaside neighborhood of Russian immigrants, the rites of summer appear unchanged nine months after Hurricane Sandy left scores of residents without power for weeks and cars floating down the main thoroughfare of Ocean Parkway.

But amid this seeming normalcy, many synagogues and other houses of worship remain in limbo. Viewed as constitutionally ineligible to receive aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency under current policy, they are waiting for promised congressional legislation to break the logjam.

They may have a long wait.

A bill that swept through the House of Representatives would effectively revise government restrictions on FEMA, but it has been dormant in the Senate since March. The bill has been backlogged behind other legislation such as immigration reform, and stymied by Senate leaders who are reluctant to approve a bill that challenges the First Amendment. To reinvigorate the discussion, proponents of the bill introduced a counterpart bill into the Senate on July 10 to alleviate concern over separation of church and state issues.

But a host of synagogues that once anxiously anticipated a decision now doubt that the bill will ever become a law. And while disillusionment has set in, the repair costs, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars for many synagogues, have not gone away.

“Our hands are completely tied waiting for the state to give us the money we so desperately need to rebuild,” said Levi Pine, director of operations for the Russian American Jewish Experience, a local group housed in a heavily damaged Jewish center. “For many, Sandy is a thing of the past; for us still waiting, it’s something we deal with daily.”

The headquarters of RAJE is normally another popular summer destination for young Russian Jews, providing classes, discussion groups and barbecues for hundreds of students and alumni. But the only inhabitant during a recent visit to the group’s office, located inside the Jewish Center of Brighton Beach, was a lone blackbird that flew freely throughout the dimly lit hallways. past piles of sheetrock.

The JCBB incurred more than $1 million in damages from the storm, including flooding in the synagogue where RAJE hosted daily services and weekly Sabbath programs. Pine estimated that only 35% of damages in the JCBB have been repaired, largely through funds provided by flood insurance and through volunteer help. Yet its insurance claims have been successful only sporadically. For example, its insurance company agreed to reimburse costs toward restoring electricity in the building, but rejected the repair of a small broken window caused by flooding, according to Yehuda Loweff, president of the JCBB.


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