NEW YORK—Hurricane Sandy stormed into New York and New Jersey with unmitigated force, carrying death and destruction, disrupting lives, and devastating neighborhoods in America’s most densely populated regions—which happen to be home to some of the country’s largest Jewish populations.
In response, the Jewish community banded together to meet immediate needs and plan for a long-term revival.
Cheryl Fishbein, chair of the Emergency Committee of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), told JNS.org Sunday that the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC-NY) is working on insurance — or lack thereof — issues. On Monday, JFNA announced that 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.
Also on Monday, UJA of New York said it would commit up to $10 million to assist to organizations and people in the aftermath of Sandy, representing its largest-ever relief effort for a natural disaster.
“We’re pulling together, recognizing that people have really been demolished,” Fishbein said.
“The entire community — religious, not religious, left to right, Chabad and secular, synagogues, organizations — everybody is under the tent, a tent that stretches as big as it can possibly be,” she said. “People need to know we’re out there, checking on one another, making sure everyone is safe.”
Rabbi Daniel Freelander, senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), said URJ sent New Orleans-based congregational leaders who helped rebuild synagogues after Hurricane Katrina to consult with two synagogues that were partially wiped out, Temple Sinai in Massapequa, N.Y., and West End Temple in Neponsit, N.Y.
Leaders of those two Long Island synagogues were “overwhelmed by what they need to do” after the hurricane, Freelander said, particularly regarding setting priorities — for example, what needs to be rebuilt first, bathrooms or the sanctuary? The New Orleans leaders affirmed that synagogue members come before any infrastructure.
“Guys, a congregation is not a building, it’s the people,” the New Orleans leaders told the Long Island synagogues, according to Freelander.
Carol Goldstein, president of the Marks Jewish Community House in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, detailed the work being done by volunteers and staff.
“I’m so proud to be part of an agency that exemplifies the Jewish belief we are responsible one to another,” she told JNS.org.
Marks Jewish Community House Executive Director Alex Budnitsky, together with staff and volunteers, climbed innumerable 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 Entwine, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) young leadership program that usually works in eastern European Jewish communities, were on the ground in Brooklyn, according to Goldstein. The director of a clinic in Kharkov, 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.
Sigal Greenfeld Middelman arrived in New York just days before the storm. She is chaperon of the Israeli contingent of the America Israel Friendship League’s YASE (Young Ambassadors Student Exchange) program. Sandy, she said, created “a really awful situation.”
“I had to keep the kids calm and assure their safety — especially without electricity,” she said. “Parents were worried — there was no phone service for days.” Email and Skype helped Middelman keep parents 6,000 miles away as calm as possible.
U.S. 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 massive 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.”
Rivkah Brikman, the rabbi’s wife, stressed that the storm did not stop Shabbat.
“Homemade food came from Crown Heights (where Chabad headquarters are located),” she said. “We gathered in one of only three undamaged homes. Even without heat, the warm feelings made it the most beautiful Shabbat ever.”
“This is a very loving community,” she added. “Everyone is helping one another — Jews and non-Jews: reaching out to one another. No hurricane will stop us.”
As Shabbat approached Nov. 2, the UJA of New York distributed more than 800 challot to people hurt by the storm. By Shabbat eve, many Chabad centers had reopened their facilities; some organized virtual bake-a-thons to produce challot — 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.
“It’s a very meaningful time, because people really put things into perspective,” he told Chabad.org. “There are things that we take for granted so many times.” Rabbi Eliezer Zaklikovsky of the Chabad Jewish center of Monroe, N.J., distributed self-heating kosher meals to Jewish college students in area shelters.
“We’re trying to get hot soup as well,” Zaklikovsky said. “Our spirit is strong. The damage is great, but we’re trying to move on.”
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 JASA (Jewish Agency for Services to the Aged), said the agency 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, as all 18 senior centers its serves have been reopened and only one of its Far Rockaway buildings was without power as of Sunday, 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 (“Met Council”) in New York, told JNS.org that a major food depot used to service the Met Council client’s needs had flooded, but assured that Met Council and UJA are working together to get food and water to thousands of Jews who were or are still without power, heat, or elevator service.
“The network of volunteers and staff is tremendous,” Brick said. “We are working with [the] Hatzolah [emergency medical team], going door to door, to make sure all the seniors are okay.”
The URJ is working with 180 congregations from affected areas, Freelander (its senior vice president) said, 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 recovery efforts for both Jews and non-Jews. UJA of New York, JFNA, Chabad, and the National Council of Young Israel, among other groups, also set up relief funds.
The role of synagogues is “to create Jews of value who serve the larger world,” Freelander said, echoing the Reform movement’s guiding principle of tikkun olam.
“We have an obligation not just to help our own, but to help the larger community,” he said.
(Jacob Kamaras contributed to this story.)