Jeff Leb Testifies to NYC Council on FEMA Aid for Houses of Worship Hit by Sandy

Posted on February 7, 2013 In Blog

The following testimony was delivered to the New York City Council on February 7, 2013 by Jeff Leb, New York Political Director for the Orthodox Union.

Good Morning, Chairman Recchia, and Council Members Vallone, Greenfield, Vann, Fidler, Van Bramer, Jackson, Koslowitz, Ferreras, Koepell, Ignizio and Foster.

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to testify in support of this important resolution.

My name is Jeff Leb and I am the New York Director of Political Affairs of the Orthodox Union. The Orthodox Union, or the ‘OU’, is the largest organization representing Orthodox Jewry around the world, representing over 300,000 people worldwide and thousands of Synagogues, with over 150 in New York.

As we know, and experienced firsthand, SuperStorm Sandy caused widespread devastation throughout New York State and New York City.

The New York State Council of Churches reported that over 100 of its member churches sustained damage. Dozens of Synagogues in New York City sustained damage while some were competently destroyed, including synagogues in Bayswater, Far Rockaway and Howard Beach in Queens, Sea Gate, Coney Island, Mill Basin and Gravesend in Brooklyn, and in several different neighborhoods in Staten Island.

Yet even in many of the communities where there was widespread damage, these houses of worship were transformed from places of prayer to community resource centers, serving food and water and providing clothing and essential supplies to those in need, regardless of race or religion.

To date, despite our persistent conversation with Federal officials, FEMA has resisted providing remediation to damaged Houses of Worship. Since FEMA does provide funds for the repair and restoration of other private nonprofit buildings damaged in a disaster, we believe this policy toward houses of worship is fundamentally unfair.

Interestingly, there are precedents for federal aid to disaster damaged houses of worship. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Congress overruled FEMA’s refusal to provide assistance to the damaged churches, and in 2002 after an earthquake in Seattle, the Justice Department intervened to order FEMA assist religious organizations damaged by the quake.

One would think that by now, after the largest and most devastating storm to ever hit New York, FEMA would understand that Houses of Worship that are in need of repair are eligible for funding just like every other home and business on the block, but unfortunately, these Houses of Worship have been discouraged from applying for funding and those who have applied for assistance have been denied.

The time has come for common sense to inform federal policy. SuperStorm Sandy did not discriminate among the neighborhoods that it destroyed; the Houses of Worship did not discriminate against those who congregated there for food, shelter, security and support. Many Houses of Worship actually provided space for FEMA, HUD and the SBA to host forums and provide information – to the residents – and therefore, these agencies should not discriminate against these Houses of Worship that are an essential part of the community and the fabric of our society.

Again, FEMA provides aid to various types of private nonprofit entities including: schools, community centers, homeless shelters, day care centers and more. Houses of worship often conduct the very same activities as these entities, but are denied assistance from FEMA if the activity takes place in a religious context. This is an outrage and is fundamentally unfair.

Basic fairness and principles of nondiscrimination, let alone compassion, should compel Congress and the Executive Branch to change policy and declare houses of worship eligible for disaster relief assistance administered by FEMA.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy and every major disaster within recent memory – churches, synagogues and other houses of worship have been essential in a community’s recovery and response effort. Even while the church may have its HVAC system destroyed it will welcome the homeless. Even while the synagogue may have been flooded, it will feed the hungry.

On behalf of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, we thank the New York City Council for realizing that Houses of Worship should be eligible for the same disaster assistance aid for the damage caused by Sandy, that every home, business and non-profit organization is entitled to and we echo the call on the Federal Government to provide that aid so that these Houses of Worship that have provided so much to so many, can complete their own recovery and continue their service to the community.

Thank you for your time.