Hurricanes wrath spurs Jewish community response

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Hurricane Sandy stormed into New York and New Jersey with unmitigated force, wreaking death and destruction, disrupting lives and devastating neighborhoods in America’s most densely populated regions — which happen to be home to the country’s largest Jewish population.

In response, the Jewish community banded together to meet immediate needs and plan for long-term recovery.

On Nov. 5, the Jewish Federations of North America announced it is distributing $500,000 in emergency relief, including $250,000 to the UJA-Federation of New York and $250,000 to 10 Jewish federations in New Jersey.

At the Mazel school in Brooklyn, Torah scrolls are unrolled to dry after being damaged by the floodwaters from Hurricane Sandy. photo/jta-ben harris

That same day, UJA-Federation of New York said it would commit up to $10 million to assist in the hurricane’s aftermath, representing its largest-ever relief effort for a natural disaster.

“We’re pulling together, recognizing that people have really been demolished,” said Cheryl Fishbein, chair of JFNA’s emergency committee.  “People need to know we’re out there, checking on one another, making sure everyone is safe.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who represents several of the devastated Brooklyn neighborhoods, said Sandy should lead to a “massive reordering of priorities.” His district includes Sea Gate, a historic gated community that suffered major wind and water damage. Many homes were entirely washed away.

Rabbi Chaim Brikman of Chabad by the Ocean, which serves Sea Gate and Coney Island, said Sandy “hit with about 10 feet of water.”

“Everything was destroyed — offices, classrooms, the library,” Brikman said. “Somehow I had the intuition to bring all the Torahs to the upper floor — some are over 100 years old.”

Several schools, notably in beach areas, took a big hit. Two of the three campuses of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach on Long Island reportedly suffered major damage, and the 120-student Yeshiva of Belle Harbor in hard-hit Far Rockaway, Queens, was flooded beyond repair, the New York Jewish Week reported. Water flooded past the ceilings of the first-floor classrooms, and by Nov. 2 the school had decided to merge with the Crown Heights Yeshiva in Brooklyn’s Mill Basin neighborhood, the paper reported. At the Mazel Day School in Brighton Beach, books, furniture, classrooms and Torah scrolls were destroyed in a building that was renovated just last year.

The Lower Manhattan office building that houses the Jewish Daily Forward and several Jewish organizations may be closed for several months due to flood damage while transformers, boilers and other equipment are replaced.

Makom Hadash, an office-sharing initiative led by the Jewish environmental group Hazon, has leased space in the Forward’s office since 2010. The partner organizations, which also are affected by the building’s closure, include Limmud NY, Moving Traditions, Storahtelling, Nehirim, B3: The Jewish Boomer Platform, and the Jewish Greening Fellowship, an initiative of the     Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.

As the storm receded, volunteers began showing up in droves to lend a hand in the hardest-hit neighborhoods.

Carol Goldstein, president of the Marks Jewish Community House in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, detailed the work being done by volunteers and staff.

Yeshiva University students distribute water, food, batteries and flashlights to residents of New York’s Lower East Side on Nov. 1. photo/jta-chavie lieber

“I’m so proud to be part of an agency that exemplifies the Jewish belief we are responsible one to another,” she said. Executive Director Alex Budnitsky,

together with staff and volunteers, climbed multiple flights of stairs, carrying meals and water to those trapped in high-rise apartments without electricity. Brooklyn’s Neptune Avenue, he said, “truly looked like a war zone.”

“I applaud the efforts of the volunteers of the community,” he said. “The response is unprecedented. People of all ages from all over Brooklyn have given their time, energy, knowledge, language skills and more to make sure care is taken of everybody from seniors to kids.”

Volunteers from synagogues and the young leadership program Entwine were on the ground in Brooklyn, according to Goldstein. The director of a clinic in Ukraine asked how he could help Russian-speaking Jews in Brooklyn. Teens whose classes were canceled visited the elderly and calls were made to Holocaust survivors, she said. 

As Shabbat approached Nov. 2, UJA-Federation of New York distributed more than 800 challahs to people hurt by the storm. By Shabbat eve, many Chabad centers had reopened their facilities; some organized virtual bake-a-thons to produce challahs — even when power was out — and many organized Shabbat meals.

In Freehold, a town on the hard-hit New Jersey shore, Rabbi Avrohom Bernstein invited people to share a Friday night meal, even without electricity. Rabbi Eliezer Zaklikovsky of the Chabad Jewish center of Monroe, N.J. distributed self-heating kosher meals to Jewish college students in area shelters.

The JCC in Manhattan prepared meals for more than 1,000 people in shelters at John Jay College and at George Washington High School. Water, blankets, clothing and toys were given to more than 600 people.

Aileen Gitelson, CEO of Jewish Agency for Services to the Aged, said the staff “has gone above and beyond the call of duty to assure the provisions are made for seniors in New York City.”

JASA provides 650,000 meals a year. Gitelson said its meals program is now back in full force, with all 18 senior centers it serves reopened. Only one of its Far Rockaway buildings was without power as of Nov. 4.

“Despite being urged to evacuate, perhaps 30 to 40 percent of the residents remained in their homes, even in the dark,” Gitelson said. “Everyone was visited or called; everyone is safe.”

Peter Brick, chief operating officer of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in New York, said a major food depot used to service clients’ needs had flooded, but that the council and UJA were working together to get food and water to thousands of Jews without power, heat or elevator service.

“The network of volunteers and staff is tremendous,” Brick said. “We are working with Hatzolah [emergency medical team], going door to door, to make sure all the seniors are OK.”

Rabbi Daniel Freelander, senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the URJ is working with 180 congregations from affected areas, dealing with challenges such as finding alternative sites for services and religious school classes. The point is “for our member congregations to know that they’re never alone,” he said.

Additionally, URJ’s Disaster Relief Fund is contributing to general recovery efforts. UJA of New York, JFNA, Chabad and the National Council of Young Israel, among other groups, also set up relief funds, as did the Jewish federations based in San Francisco and the East Bay.

“We have an obligation not just to help our own, but to help the larger community,” Freelander said.

Jacob Kamaras
of and JTA staff contributed to this report.