Jewish Community Split Over Federal Aid For Sandy-Hit Synagogues

As the Senate prepares to vote on a bill providing federal funding for communities affected by superstorm Sandy, the inclusion of houses of worship as eligible for federal aid has prompted a political and religious controversy, The Jewish Daily Forward reports.

Young Israel of Oceanside in Long Island, one of 72 synagogues in the New York area damaged by superstorm Sandy (Photo via Flickr, Creative Commons License)

Reporter Seth Berkman cites Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat who said he sympathized with the synagogues, churches and mosques damaged during the storm, but did not believe that federal taxpayer dollars should be used to repair religious institutions.

Advocates of the bill see it as a no-brainer, given the extent of the damage from the storm, which affected 72 synagogues in the New York area. Critics say the bill raises questions about the separation of church and state. They even claim that such legislative aid is unconstitutional.

The legislation has led to a contested debate among leading Jewish organizations, which universally agree on the exceptionality of Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the Jewish community but differ on how far they are willing to relent on their principles of separation of religion and state.

According to the article, the American Jewish Committee supports the bill. The Anti-Defamation League initially opposed it, but changed its position on Wednesday and now supports it. Among Jewish lawmakers, 14 House members are supportive, and eight opposed.

Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said the legislation presents the latest phase in the debate between two different understandings of the First Amendment.

“According to one side, it requires a strict separation, and Jews have frequently favored that interpretation, although it doesn’t exactly say that in the First Amendment,” Sarna said. “They have often believed that the more government is separate from religious institutions, not giving them aid and not concerning themselves with religious institutions, the better it would be for religion generally and for minority faiths in particular.”

The other argument, according to Sarna, is that the First Amendment aims “to ensure that government doesn’t favor one religion over another.” An example is the placement of religious symbols in public areas during the holiday season, as long as all religions are represented.

According to the article, as Congress discussed an aid package, many Jewish groups, including the Orthodox Union, the Jewish Federations of North America, the New York Board of Rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly and Agudath Israel, pressured lawmakers to amend the law that makes houses of worship largely ineligible for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The amendment has received bipartisan support in the House, and has been praised by New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

But Rabbi David Saperstein, director and counsel of the Religious Action Center, disagreed, saying that the bill “clearly raises issues on separation of church and state.”

“It’s government funding religious institutions and their buildings,” Saperstein said. He also echoed Nadler’s notion that the bill was rushed through the House. “We barely had time to focus on it in our office,” he said. “I hope the Senate will take time to look at this very carefully before moving into a constitutionally problematic area.”

The bill could face staunch opposition in the Senate. If passed, however, another complex issue will be deciding under what guidelines a building will be classified as a house of worship, which could be challenging from a constitutional point of view.

Sarna noted that throughout the country, there are nontraditional locations that are used for worship, like Chabad houses, or home-based gatherings among Protestants.

“Suddenly, there’s a question of whether we are going to discriminate in favor of religions that can afford to have a dedicated house of worship,” Sarna said. “This particular law will require government to make very complicated decisions about what is and is not legitimate religious worship space.”

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