UJA-Federation of New York and other Jewish agencies are helping synagogues damaged during Hurricane Sandy to apply for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, even though the government agency currently bars grants to houses of worship because of concern that such aid may violate the First Amendment.
Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said the O.U. was still discussing the details of classification with the Department of Homeland Security, but the government was “advising synagogues and other houses of worship to apply, so once we work it out the issue won’t be, ‘We didn’t file.’”
FEMA’s concerns stem from the Constitution’s prohibition on government aid to religion. But Ed Conley, a FEMA spokesman, said certain not-for-profit institutions that provide essential public services, such as schools or homeless shelters, are eligible for aid even if they are affiliated with a religious institution. He did not know if any synagogues had filed for aid yet. The agency, Conley said, was still in an emergency response phase.
“Right now, the focus is primarily on lifesaving and life-sustaining measures and not so much looking at restoration,” he said.
Still, with a December 30 deadline for not-for-profit institutions to apply for FEMA assistance in New York, UJA-Federation is encouraging any synagogue that suffered damage to submit the forms.
Yisroel Schulman, president and attorney-in-charge of the New York Legal Assistance Group, which is providing pro bono services to synagogues referred by UJA-Federation, said his organization has been holding workshops and one-on-one sessions on how to submit FEMA applications.
“What’s not under the current definition is synagogues,” Schulman said. “If they’re a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, we encourage them to apply. We argue [that] critical charitable work should be covered.”
Conley said that a synagogue acting as a homeless shelter wouldn’t necessarily be eligible unless it had documentation that it had operated as one before the hurricane.
Ira Grossman, FEMA’s team leader for Jewish community outreach for Hurricane Sandy, said synagogues should also apply for aid from the Small Business Administration. The two agencies have separate applications, but the FEMA application must be filed first, he said, as the SBA application requires a FEMA registration number.
Not every damaged synagogue intended to apply for federal aid or knew exactly what the deadlines and parameters of the application were.
“Some community members are doing some research about FEMA for us,” said Shula Winner, co-director of Chabad Synagogue of Manhattan Beach, in Brooklyn. “We want to apply, but there’s no guarantees for anything.” Winner said she had not yet been in contact with UJA-Federation for guidance on applying.
Rabbi Marjorie Slome of West End Temple, which is located in the Queens neighborhood of Neponsit in the Rockaways, said that with help from the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York she would apply to FEMA for aid.
One Jewish communal official involved in the aid effort noted that the areas damaged most heavily in the hurricane, such as the Rockaways and Brooklyn’s Sea Gate, were homes to “marginal” Jewish populations.
“To a great extent, a lot of the Jewish poor lived in these communities,” said the official, who would speak only if assured of anonymity because he was not authorized as a spokesman on this issue. The synagogues were old, as were many of their members, he said. And many of the old synagogues and homes were not insured against natural disasters.
The makeup of these communities poses an additional problem even if government aid or insurance money is ultimately obtained, the official said: It is unclear how many of the potential recipients are capable of managing substantial reconstruction projects that could involve numerous contractors.
“Can they fix up their own homes, even if they have insurance?” this official asked. “Will their children allow them to go back?”
In New Jersey, where there are 18 Jewish federations, there was no large-scale effort to encourage those synagogues to apply for FEMA aid.
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg of the United Synagogue of Hoboken said he is contemplating whether or not to apply for FEMA and that he had received advice from the Network of Independent Communities, an umbrella organization of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Rabbi Benjamin Adler of White Meadow Temple, in Rockaway, N.J., said his congregation had not yet applied to FEMA, as he was waiting to hear back on what his insurance would cover and didn’t know what could be covered under FEMA regulations.
The advocates encouraging synagogues to apply were optimistic that legislation could be introduced to allow houses of worship to receive federal funding.
In March 2002, the O.U. worked to get FEMA reconstruction funds for Seattle Hebrew Academy after an earthquake struck the area. According to The Jewish Week of New York, the O.U. also successfully lobbied in 2007 to have the statute that governs FEMA amended to make nonpublic, not-for-profit schools eligible for aid.
“The discussion we’re having is not to change the law,” Diament said. “It’s not about church and state issues, or the impact that Sandy may have wrought on a number of houses of worship, but whether or not they [FEMA] have the ability under their operating statute to make those grants.”
Not every applicant believes FEMA can provide a magic solution for their financial woes, though. Rabbi David Bauman of Temple Israel of Long Beach, in Long Island’s Nassau County, said he felt rushed into having to apply for aid by the December 30 deadline.
“It takes time to understand, to really assess your situation,” he said. “I’m not even sure four weeks after the event we’ll know.
“I’m a novice when it comes to these sorts of issues, but there should be the ability, as time goes on, during the next few months up to a year, to continually have a conversation with different agencies to help make a place as whole as possible”
Bauman said his synagogue was insured, but he noted, “Insurance companies have outs for everything.
“We’re not even sure if FEMA can help us, because we are a religious institution. What I’ve learned in this environment is, you deal with every single agency and person you can, and not one entity is able to help any given situation, but it will be a combination of things.”
Contact Seth Berkman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Assistant managing editor Larry Cohler-Esses contributed to this story