Hurricane Sandy and Houses of Worship

NOELLE SERPER, correspondent: Nearly five months after Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast, causing massive destruction, West End Temple in the Rockaways section of Queens, New York remains empty. Much of the synagogue had to be completely gutted due to extensive wind and water damage from the storm.

RABBI MARJORIE SLOME: The line was right here. So this is how high the water came to.

SERPER: The temple’s rabbi, Marjorie Slome, says the building is still uninhabitable.

RABBI SLOME: There’s no electricity, there’s no heat. There’s no water. There are no toilets with doors on them.

SERPER: More than a hundred houses of worship in New York and New Jersey were hard hit by the storm and many are now lobbying the Federal Emergency Management Agency to change its policy and allow federal funds for their reconstruction. Despite an insurance policy of up to a million dollars, and some local fundraising, Rabbi Slome says more help is needed.

RABBI SLOME: My goal is just to get us to a place where we can be what we were before, and I don’t think we’re going to be able to do it without FEMA monies.

SERPER: Under current FEMA regulations, federal disaster relief funds can go to some religiously-affiliated non-profits, such as soup kitchens or homeless shelters, but synagogues, mosques, and churches are not eligible for government assistance to rebuild.

Reverend Welton Gaddy is a Baptist minister and president of Interfaith Alliance, a group that advocates for the separation of church and state.

REV. WELTON GADDY: If the FEMA people distribute that money to houses of worship, then there is an agreement between the government and that particular house of worship and where that agreement leads nobody knows.

RABBI SLOME: I always say that, you know, if there were a fire there would be no question that the fireman would pull up and put out a fire in our temple, and Hurricane Sandy is the same thing in my mind, as a fire.

REV. GADDY: There is a big difference between fighting a fire to put out a church and save its structure and having taxpayers buy a cross, buy a new organ to replace the one that was there, put a steeple on top of a building.

SERPER: Rabbi Slome says government funds would not be spent on religious items such as new prayer books for her congregation. The money, she argues, would go towards repairing the building, which she says is commonly used by the wider community. She calls the synagogue a community institution.

RABBI SLOME: The boiler we need to replace is going to heat the nursery school. The electricity is going to provide lighting for Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers and basketball and brownies. It’s not just going to provide heat and electricity for our sanctuary or for the rabbi study.

SERPER: But Reverend Gaddy and other church-state groups say despite other uses, houses of worship are first and foremost religious institutions.

REV. GADDY: I would just ask the question, “What is your primary identity? Are you a community house or are you a synagogue? Are you a recreation center or are you a church that has built a recreational building?”

SERPER: In a recent memo to Congress, FEMA officials raised similar concerns over having to determine what constitutes religious space and what doesn’t. That debate will continue as legislation making religious congregations eligible for federal disaster relief heads to the Senate after easily passing in the House of Representatives.