Jewish community organizations hailed a congressional vote Feb. 13 that would allow federal compensation for houses of worship damaged by Superstorm Sandy and future devastating acts of nature.
The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly, 354-72, to include churches, mosques, and synagogues in disaster relief programs of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The bill had been strongly supported by the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, the Orthodox Union, Jewish Federations of North America, and the American Jewish Committee, as well as Catholic and Protestant church groups.
State Association president Ruth Cole and executive director Jacob Toporek supported the bill in a Feb. 11 letter to the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Chris Smith (R-Dist. 4).
“With the hurricane’s impact still very much in evidence for our state, we have needed houses of worship more than ever to ease the path to recovery for the community and each of their individual members. Even though the church, mosque, temple, or synagogue may have been physically damaged, houses of worship continue to provide essential response services to people in need.”
Josh Pruzansky, NJ director of political affairs at the OU, concurred.
“We were lucky that our synagogues in New Jersey were not hit worse than they were,” he told NJJN. “We escaped major damage. Most of the major damage was in New York.
“But the beauty of this bill is not just that it covers the damage from Sandy but for any future storm,” Pruzansky said.
Opponents of the bill said federal funding for religious institutions runs afoul of the Establishment Clause.
“We must not let a storm sweep away the wall of separation between church and state,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg believes his shul, the United Synagogue of Hoboken, may have been the state’s most severely damaged Jewish house of worship.
“We already did apply for FEMA funds because our level of damage was significant — about $60,000,” he said in an interview. “Our entire basement was destroyed. The water level went from the floor to the ceiling, and the biggest item was replacement of the boiler.
“But hopefully these funds will also go a long way toward helping some of the churches in Hoboken which had damage much worse than ours or had less of an ability to cope with the damage than we had.”
NJ synagogues harmed by the storm included Chabad of Western Monmouth County in Manalapan, which suffered damage at its Gan Israel Day Camp; the Center for Jewish Life in Marlboro, which faced tree removal and repairs; Chabad of the Shore in Long Branch, whose roof, windows, and carpets were damaged, and Temple Shalom in Aberdeen.
In addition, the JCC of Long Beach Island, a newly built Conservative synagogue that was constructed to withstand storm damage, nonetheless needed to replace its fire and smoke alarm system as well as some electrical appliances.
“We are going to encourage them to apply for FEMA funds,” Ariella Raviv, manager of community impact for the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, told NJJN.
Along with Smith, two other NJ House members, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Dist. 9) and Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-Dist. 2) were cosponsors of the measure.
Only three of New Jersey’s 12 House members — Rep. Rob Andrews (D-Dist. 1), Donald Payne Jr. (D-Dist. 10), and Rush Holt (D-Dist. 12) voted against the bill.