The following statement was offered today as testimony by Chaim Leibtag, the Chief Operating Officer of the National Council of Young Israel and the President of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Far Rockaway, at a hearing held by the New York City Council’s Committee on Finance.
The hearing focused on a Resolution calling on the United States Congress to introduce and pass legislation that would amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to allow aid to be given to houses of worship affected by Hurricane Sandy on terms similar to other eligible private non-profit facilities.
February 7, 2013
City Council Speaker Quinn, Distinguished Councilmembers,
My name is Chaim Leibtag. I am the President of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Far Rockaway, a proud homeowner of over 30 years in the Rockaways, and a survivor of Superstorm Sandy.
I had the privilege to lead my synagogue during the critical weeks following the storm as we provided food (three meals a day), shelter, electrical power strips and Wi-Fi, gasoline, and critical information to those impacted. We opened our synagogue to FEMA, the Governor’s office, and other government agencies to set up information tables. We took two classrooms and gave them to a local pediatrician whose office was decimated. The other rooms were set up as a clothing distribution center and a food pantry. For three weeks we housed the second and third grades of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach and ran youth activities, including a magician, arts and crafts, and a music concert for children. Our volunteers walked and drove the darkened streets at night as an adjunct to the local 101. Our volunteers drove to Connecticut to buy batteries and flashlights that we distributed free of charge. And we drove the neighborhood offering our assistance to the churches and community centers that were not as well organized as we were. One night we loaded over 15 pallets of food to the Baptist church around the corner.
In my professional life, I serve as the Chief Operating Officer of the National Council of Young Israel (the parent body to over 150 synagogues in the United States). Our organization helped to raise critical funds and provide organizational relief for the 13 synagogues in our network that were most heavily impacted. Our communities include Oceanside, Long Beach, Woodmere, North Woodmere, Merrick, Cedarhurst, Far Rockaway, Bayswater, Belle Harbor, Brighton Beach, Kings Bay, Canarsie and Margate, New Jersey. And we did this as our own offices in Lower Manhattan were shuttered for over two months. Our synagogues suffered significant damage, well over 3 million dollars, yet were centers in their communities for disaster relief. Just this past Sunday we ran a webinar attended by nearly 50 leaders of our communities to review and prepare them with the tools and knowledge that they will need as they encounter going forward over the next 9 months. Our communities are still suffering, and while we slowly move back to “normal” the professional and volunteer requirements will continue to be met by our religious network.
Where would we be today without our religious institutions? While I commend the city for its incredible work, can you imagine the city trying to feed and clothe the myriad of people in need, while at the same time giving them a place to charge their cell phones?
At no time, did we ever ask the religious affiliation of the thousands who came through our doors. At no time did we ever deny anyone food and shelter. At no time did we ever consider that we should be repaid for the tireless work we did. At no time did we expect the government to come and bail us out. And at no time did we ever consider that because our founding fathers in their infinite wisdom created a separation between church and state, that we would be abandoned by our government.
Synagogues, mosques, and churches are the centers of their communities. They become that way because that is the nature of what they are. Even the unaffiliated and non-believers come to a house of worship in difficult times because they know deep inside that this is the place where they will receive help.
Madame Speaker, our houses of worship are built with private dollars. These private dollars have been decimated by the storm. The 3 month harangue with FEMA, the state and federal government, and the insurance cartels have placed an unacceptable burden on those private dollars. So, do our houses remain unfinished or do our houses of worship lay barren? Government is forcing us to make choices that are totally unnecessary and morally unacceptable. The founding fathers made a distinction between church and state so that government of the people and by the people would endure in a country where religion would not be forced upon anyone. They did not make that distinction so that the government of the people and by the people would abandon their citizens in their greatest hour of need, in the one central house that all who chooses can call home.
Our organization and my synagogue implore you to find the way to help us cross this fictitious boundary so that the institutions of religion can rebuild. Americans and New Yorkers especially, have always found that way. We urge you to introduce and pass legislation that would amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to allow aid to be given to houses of worship affected by Hurricane Sandy on terms similar to other eligible private non-profit facilities. We stand with you and ask to join you to establish a pluralistic committee that would regulate this form of disbursement. Fund us not for our religious practice; fund us for our practice of humanity.
“In God we trust” should not be left just as a slogan on a dollar bill; it should be the mantra that we sing and the banner that we raise so that government can help its religious communities grow to higher and greater levels of service.
Chaim Leibtag, LCSW