The rabbi of a synagogue in Rockaway heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy recently noted the illogic of those who argue that houses of worship should not be allowed to apply for federal emergency aid, in keeping with the separation of church and state.
“If my temple were to have a fire,” he was quoted in the New York Post as saying, “the Fire Department is not going to pull up and say, ‘This is a synagogue, we can’t put out the fire.”
He is quite right; emergencies are just that — sudden crises that require immediate attention.
And so it is that the House of Representatives, by a vote of 354-72, last month passed a bill that would add houses of worship to the list of nonprofits eligible for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), along with schools, libraries and museums.
The Orthodox Union led the push for the legislation, which was cosponsored by Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.), and is now before the U.S. Senate, where Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is leading the bipartisan effort.
We encourage passage so that synagogues, churches and mosques still suffering from the effects of last fall’s superstorm will be able to rebuild and repair structural damage — not religious items — and continue to provide not only spiritual shelter but a variety of supportive services like soup kitchens and child care programs that benefit the whole community.
There is precedent for making FEMA aid available to houses of worship, going back to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. And at last count, 239 houses of worship in the New York area, including at least 60 synagogues, have filed for FEMA aid. (It is likely that many others did not submit the required paperwork because they were told they were ineligible.)
UJA-Federation of New York and an impressive and inspiring host of grass-roots efforts from near and far have provided help for those in the Jewish community who have suffered. But only the federal government has the resources to fully respond to the need at hand. Common sense dictates that people can be helped and their houses of worship can be restored without jeopardizing religious liberties. We trust the Senate agrees.
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