High winds leave congregations in the dark

BY KEREN DOUEK, ASSISTANT EDITOR

Zack Gonsher — a native of Omaha, Neb. who now lives in University City with his wife, Lara — was at Busch stadium on Wednesday evening, July 19, waiting to watch the Cardinals battle it out against the Braves, when what he describes as a “huge, dirty, black cloud” covered the stadium, and the stadium became something of a wind tunnel.

“The wind was whipping in a circle, like a mini-tornado, picking up all kinds of dirt and trash,” Gonsher said. “It didn’t rain for a while, and everyone was looking at the storm coming in but I don’t think anyone knew how bad it was or was going to be.”

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While the game did eventually get underway, with what Gonsher described as an “amazing light show” in the background, the storm that tore through the area that night and brought winds reportedly up to 80 miles per hour left behind damaged homes and buildings, streets covered in downed trees and wires, and more than a half million residents without power right in the middle of a brutal heat wave, with temperatures topping 100 degrees on Thursday.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

After Ameren worked around the clock to bring tens of thousands of homes and businesses without power back onto the grid, a second storm hit St. Louis Friday morning, bringing with it more damage, and leaving 200,000 more in Missouri and Illinois in the dark.

St. Louis residents sought refuge and air conditioning in the scattered movie theaters, malls and cafes that were fortunate enough to have power while the local community and the local Jewish community worked to assess the damage and regroup.

The Jewish Community Center opened its doors as an emergency cooling center, with its auditorium serving as a sleeping headquarters for individuals in need. Ken Weintraub, president and CEO of the JCC said the center served only a handful of individuals Thursday night, but served approximately 150 people on Friday night after many of the other cooling sites around town lost their power in Friday’s storm.

Block Yeshiva High School allowed several people without power to move in temporarily and stay in its air conditioned lounge.

Central Reform Congregation opened its doors as a temporary daytime place for people to come in and cool down, offering computer access, ice water and a well-stocked library.

And in addition to organizations with power lending a hand to people without, many individuals and families who had power sought to help those without power in any way they could.

“We saw a real display of chesed and coming together,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Bienenfeld of Young Israel of St. Louis. “People who had power were willing to share, and people who did not have power found somebody to help them. We were very encouraged by that generosity.”

Volunteers made phone calls from Young Israel, which had electricity, to connect people who had power and were able to offer meals and sleeping accommodations with those who were in need.

That need became especially urgent in the Orthodox community as Shabbat neared and the power outages continued to roll through the community unpredictably, continuously changing the situation by returning power to some and taking from others who had previously been connected.

Rachel Lubchansky said she felt the storm really drove home the adage “what goes around comes around.” She and her husband, Adam, made a meal Thursday night for those without power, opened their refrigerators and freezers for storage to those who had food going bad, and were planning on hosting two families for Shabbat before they lost power themselves Friday morning, and then they received a place to stay and many meal invitations from the community.

Meanwhile, Adina Frydman and Avi Orlow were offered a place to stay by Michael and Sima Oberlander before their own power was restored right before Shabbat. The couple ended up staying home and hosted their own impromptu Shabbat meal so the Oberlanders could take in more people who had lost power.

In the end, the Oberlanders ended up housing 12 people for Shabbat and feeding 29 people Friday evening dinner and 20 people Shabbat lunch before their power went out during dessert.

Bais Abraham Congregation’s Rabbi Hyim Shafner and his family were among those taken in by the Oberlanders, and said that overall it ended up as a “very powerful weekend.”

“Obviously it was kind of traumatic because people did not have electricity and it was the hottest day of the year,” Shafner said, “but I heard from a lot of people that Shabbat turned into something that will really be remembered.”

Shafner said only a few families from Bais Abraham had power after the storm, but that they readily took in those who needed a place for Shabbat.

Neighbors Kim Margolis and Edward and Lyla Puro called Shafner to find out who needed a place, and joined together to host Shabbat meals for members of the community who were without power, as well as hosting people at their homes.

Bais Abraham was among many local temples to lose power, but held Friday night services outside and Shabbat morning services in its regular sanctuary which had sufficient sunlight and ventilation from the windows.

Young Israel had power and kept its doors open and its air conditioning running so that people could have a place to go to cool off over Shabbat.

“During the week people have different places to go, but on Shabbat you are sort of stuck, so we made the shul available so people could come in and cool off,” Bienenfeld said.

Shaarei Chesed lost power but Rabbi Elazar Grunberger said the best effort would be made to still have minyans available 7 days a week and three times a day.

“A shul needs to have a sense of stability for the community and for the members and those who are not members but like to frequent the shul,” Grunberger said. “Part of that stability is that the minyan is active and viable for all three services seven days a week.”

Shaarei Zedek lost power but held daily services outdoors.

B’nai El held services Friday evening by the light from their skylight and had just enough power to run electric fans.

Nusach Hari B’nai Zion was only without power for a short period of time, but incurred damage including cracked windows, some loose guttering and stucco that fell from the building.

Temple Israel lost power and Rabbi Mark Shook reported that approximately 100 meals that had been prepared by volunteers as part of a program to have meals readily available for families in mourning or people returning from the hospitals or others in need were lost due to the power outage.

Additionally, Temple Israel’s day camp was temporarily closed because of the lack of power, affecting approximately 150 people who utilize the camp.

Camp Gan Israel, which is run by Chabad of Chesterfield and located in Faust Park, had to reschedule several of its trips due to the outage, and Rabbi Avi Rubenfeld reported that the frozen foods used for the camp’s hot lunches did a lot of “freezer hopping.”

B’nai Amoona camps were open and for some offered a very welcome respite from the heat.

Mindee Fredman said her kids love camp and she loves sending them, “but I was never happier to send them than on Thursday morning.”

“Unlike our house, B’nai Amoona had power, food and air conditioning, so I knew I was sending my kids to the best place around.”

Brith Sholom Knesseth Israel lost power but held daily services upstairs where there is sufficient natural light.

A BSKI over-60 program that was supposed to take place had to be rescheduled, and the salmon lunch that had already been prepared was taken in by and stored in Dierbergs freezers to prevent the food going to waste.

The Crown Center for Senior Living, comprised of apartments for independent seniors, experienced a power outage for a day-and-a-half.

Nikki Goldstein, executive director, said residents were urged to contact family and friends Wednesday night, and that the staff went around checking on residents with flashlights and opening all the windows. The building was evacuated on Thursday morning and residents stayed with family and friends or at city shelters.

Goldstein said Schmeers, which is the new caterer for the center, came Thursday morning with coffee, soda and ice, “and whatever was needed to make the residents comfortable and help the staff,” and then came back with lunch for the residents and for the firemen and staff who were helping the residents evacuate the building, and went above and beyond what was required of them.

Rabbi Hershey Novack of Chabad on Campus said a huge tree fell into the street outside the property of the new Chabad facility, and that the driver of a Metro bus got passengers from the bus to help drag the tree off of the street and onto the lawn.

Throughout the city that looked much like a war zone after several very trying days, spirits were up, even among those who were still waiting for their electricity to be restored.

Sima Oberlander, whose family as of Monday afternoon was still waiting for power, said conditions were not too bad as the house was fairly cool and the family has been sleeping in the basement.

Overall, she said she thought it was really amazing “how the community just started looking out for each other.”

Keren Douek is an assistant editor and can be reached at [email protected]