Hurricane hits East Coast Jewish community hard

Less than a year into her job at North Shore Synagogue in Syosset, N.Y., Rabbi Debbie Bravo sounded remarkably poised as she and her community on Long Island faced one of their most powerful challenges together: Hurricane Sandy.

Reached on her cellphone Oct. 30 — Bravo’s landline was dead — she said she had just returned from the local police station. “I have a child who takes medication that has to be refrigerated,” the rabbi explained.

According to figures released by the Long Island Power Authority, more than 930,000 families — 90 percent of all Long Island residents — were without power after the superstorm swept across the northeastern United States the night of Oct. 29. Of those households, an estimated 139,000 are Jewish.

Damage to New York City’s infrastructure, including the flooded subway system, was shared widely on Facebook and other websites. photo/[email protected] via twitter

Hurricane Sandy, which washed ashore just south of Atlantic City, N.J., took dead aim at the most populous region of the country, home as well to the majority of the country’s Jews. In its wake, it left a trail of devastation that may take weeks or longer to repair.

“I went over to the synagogue a few hours ago, which is right next to a woodsy area,” Bravo said. “Ten plus trees are down, including a huge one that fell on our front lawn. Everyone’s saying this is a hundred times worse” than previous natural disasters that hit Long Island.

The greater New York area, home to the largest population of Jews in North America, took a harsh hit as severe winds and flooding toppled trees, triggered electrical fires and flooded public transportation systems. The result: mass evacuations of apartments and dormitories, widespread school closings and damaged homes and community institutions.

The Jewish Federations of North America and Union for Reform Judaism announced relief funds set up on Oct. 30.

In the Bay Area, the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, Jewish Family and Children’s Services and the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund of San Francisco also set up relief funds, noting that similar financial support was offered from the Bay Area Jewish community after Hurricane Katrina and the natural disasters in southeast Asia and Haiti.

On Oct. 30, David Weissberg, executive director of the 120-year-old Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn., posted a photo of a tree that had sliced through the roof of the main building.

A tree uprooted by Hurricane Sandy in Astoria, Queens photo/jta-peter romano-cc

“We’re looking in the short term how to work around that space and need to assess how long it will take to get that space repaired,” Weissberg said.

Jewish communal organizations, whose offices, landlines and in some cases email servers were down, set up shop remotely as they tried to formulate a response.

The Jewish federations movement “is focused on both those in the Jewish community and non-Jewish community as we work with local Jewish federations, as well as local, state and federal emergency management personnel,” said William Daroff, vice president of public policy and director of JFNA’s Washington, D.C., office.

Daroff noted that while watching the devastation unfold, social media was a source of comfort. “Having a support structure and literally thousands of friends acquired through Facebook and Twitter helped me feel less alone as my family sat shuddering with gusts of wind at 50 mph.”

For those without power on Long Island, finding alternative to landlines was critical. “A lot of people are not getting cellphone service at home,” Rabbi Bravo said.

As she attempted to establish and maintain contact with the elderly and other congregants — including two with recent births — Bravo also pondered the next moves for her synagogue’s two b’nai mitzvah celebrations this weekend. In all likelihood they will be conducted without power.