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House Approves Aid to Sandy-Hit Synagogues

The House of Representatives approved legislation that would allow synagogues and houses of worship to be eligible for federal disaster relief. H.R. 592, the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013, passed 354-72, and will now move on to the Senate.

Since Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast on October 29, organizations like the Orthodox Union, Jewish Federations of North America, the New York Board of Rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly, and Agudath Israel have pressured Congress to amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.

The Constitution bans government aid to houses of worship. However, some institutions believed they should be eligible as non-profits that provided necessary services during the storm, in the roles of shelters and schools.

In December, Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs told the Forward, “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.”

Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), who voted for the legislation, compared the devastation of Sandy to Hurricane Katrina in the gulf region and recounted the impact it had on churches and synagogues in the area, which she described as not rich institutions.

Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) spoke out against the amendment, saying the issue was rushed to the floor and needed to be examined more thoroughly, since it raised important constitutional questions. Robert C. Scott (D-VA) was also against the amendment, saying it would violate years of precedence.

In a letter to Chris Smith (R-NJ), who sponsored the bill along with Grace Meng (D-NY), Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for federal government affairs for Agudath Israel, said religious institutions were integral in rebuilding devastated neighborhoods.

Temple Israel of Long Beach was one of the hardest hit synagogues in the area. Rabbi David Bauman has estimated damages totaling $5 million. He previously told the Forward that federal aid “would allow not only my synagogue, but all faith institutions to get the help they need. They deserve it, they’re the backbone of this country.”

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