Jewish voices from Joplin


Rabbi Yehuda Weg

By Victoria Siegel, Special to the Jewish Light

A week after visiting Joplin to aid with recovery and rescue efforts following the tornado, Rabbi Yehuda Weg, of Chabad of Tulsa, still can’t wrap his head around the devastation of the tornado that took at least 139 lives.

“I’ve lived here for 24 years and have seen the aftermath of tornados before but have never seen anything like this,” Weg said.

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Weg knows members of Joplin’s Jewish community from his visits there as the mashgiach for kosher food production and from members’ visits to Tulsa to attend High Holidays services. He has been going to Joplin regularly for 20 years. “I’ve built up some pretty good friendships in Joplin,” he said.

On the Sunday of the deadly storm, after holding a Lag B’Omer event in Tulsa, Weg stopped in his office to catch up on the news. “I was hit with the news of the tornado in Joplin. So I immediately began to make phone calls but I was not able to reach anyone in Joplin itself; I was able to reach people who lived outside of the city.”

When Weg talked to those contacts on Sunday the initial report wasn’t particularly alarming. “They said there had been a serious tornado and that there were, at the time, 16 fatalities…which is terrible,” Weg said. “Everyone was pretty horrified but didn’t feel the situation was overwhelming.”

It wasn’t until Monday’s morning light revealed the extent of the storm that they knew how serious it was. “I was trying to get in touch with as many people as I could,” he said.

Weg was concerned about two individuals in particular because they had no family in Joplin and were all alone. He found one, Steve Fisher, on a Red Cross list online so he knew he had survived and was in one of the shelters. “At that point I realized I needed to jump in my car and get him out of the shelter,” Weg said. “I was trying to do whatever I could do to help.”

On Monday late in the evening he took off for the two-hour drive to Carthage.

Late in the day on Tuesday, after stopping at a Wal-Mart for supplies, Weg tracked down Fisher at a shelter. “A co-worker had already taken him back to his house to try to salvage what he could find and the insurance company had just found him a hotel room. So I helped him move,” Weg said. “I drove down Rangeline, the main strip in Joplin where the Home Depot was leveled, and that’s when I really saw what happened. Then Steve and I sat down and talked and he told me his story.”

Steve Fisher’s story

On the night of the tornado, Fisher told Weg, he was in his home where he had dozed off in the living room. He woke up and felt that something was wrong.

“It crossed his mind that it was a tornado,” Weg said, relating Fisher’s story, “and that the living room wasn’t the place to be [most homes don’t have basements down there]. So he went to a bedroom close to the center of the house. As he went into that bedroom his second bedroom and garage blew away. He was so horrified he didn’t quite get it. He was actually going to stay in his bedroom that night because he couldn’t imagine what had happened.” The police made Fisher leave.

“Denial is a gift from God,” Weg continued. “It allows people to deal with issues and absorb them when they’re comfortable.”

When the police came to get Fisher out of his home, he asked them where he was supposed to go.

“They told him to stand on a specific corner and a bus will take him to a shelter,” Weg said Fisher told him. “As he was standing there waiting with others Steve heard their stories. Someone had died in the apartment building that was next to his home. He heard that an elderly couple that was at a church service that night had left early because, I think, the husband wasn’t feeling well. From what I understand, the majority of people killed in Joplin were in that church.”

Continuing the search

Once Weg knew that Fisher was settled, he took off to find his other friend, an Israeli man named Omer who worked at a kiosk in the mall. “I’ve brought him kosher food in the past and make a point to see him at the mall every time I drive through Joplin,” Weg said.

Weg found out Omer was at the home of someone he had met from working at the mall. With the address entered into his GPS, Weg found it difficult to navigate the demolished streets. “The GPS would say to make a right turn but there was no place to turn,” he said. “When I slowed down, a policeman came over to me and asked if I needed help. He then told me there’s a curfew here, 9 p.m. It’s now 8:45 and I have only 15 minutes to get to Omer.”

Weg finally located the home; it was on a street that was a carpet of glass. “I drove up to the home over the glass because I had already been driving over cables, wires and who knows what,” Weg said. When Omer saw Weg, he hugged him. Then Weg gave him food that his wife had cooked for Omer, along with bags and bags of items. The next morning Weg saw that he did, indeed, have a flat tire.

Ariel Boxman is a rabbinical student who serves United Hebrew Congregation in Joplin. That Sunday she had just arrived back home in Florida where she has an internship set up for the summer.

“I turned on the TV and saw my tiny little community on the news. I was totally in shock,” Boxman said. “I sat with my family and tried to contact everyone. I literally went through the entire phone book of the congregation. It was very scary.”

Boxman said that information on her congregants’ whereabouts first came to her through the Internet because by Sunday night she was finally able to receive e-mail from Joplin. “On Sunday we were missing the past, current and incoming presidents,” Boxman said, “and various congregants that lived in the path of the tornado. The past president lived next to the hospital that was destroyed.”

Over the next few days she started hearing from congregants who had been unable to contact her because with their homes gone, they had no way of communicating. By Wednesday everyone had been accounted for. However, just this past Sunday Boxman heard that the incoming president’s grandson was missing.

Boxman was due to return to Joplin on the Friday following the storm but came in early, on that Wednesday, instead. By Friday the synagogue was set up to serve as a distribution center. Boxman said that on Saturday around 100 to 150 people came through. By 10 a.m. the beds and pillows that had been donated by Glideaway and brought down by the United Hebrew in St. Louis caravan were gone.

“The stories of the people coming through our distribution center are heartbreaking,” Boxman said. “The first person who came through lost her 8-year-old son. One congregant said he can now see the hospital from where his home was, two miles away. Another congregant had fallen asleep in her bed and when she woke up the walls were gone. She only woke up because she was soaking wet from the rain.”

As of this past Monday, Boxman said that the congregation has given out almost everything in the distribution center. “We still have a lot of clothes left and we’re still getting donations. We’ll probably open the distribution center one day a week as the summer goes on.”

A Shabbat shalom

Thanks to the efforts of United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis, Boxman’s synagogue was able to hold Sabbath services on Friday night. “We are so grateful. They provided us with items for the Oneg and 50 challot. I handed one to everyone as they left services,” Boxman said.

She said that everyone who was originally unaccounted for attended services. “It was a huge relief to see faces together. We usually have 30 to 40 people attend services but on this Sabbath, because of the need to be with community, we had about 60. People needed to be together,” Boxman said.

A Week After the Storm

Boxman was invited to attend the special community memorial service held Sunday, but because of heightened security, she was unable to be in the actual building where President Barack Obama and Missouri Governor Jay Nixon were speaking. So she and other clergy watched through closed-circuit television.

“I cried during the governor’s speech,” Boxman said. “There was a lot of crying and a lot of hope and cheering. The stories of some of the heroic actions were very impactful. I think people felt more hopeful leaving than when they came in.”

The kindness of strangers

Larry Amitin, a member of United Hebrew in St. Louis, was part of the UH caravan that brought supplies to Joplin on the Thursday after the tornado. After making his delivery and talking with the congregants of the Joplin synagogue, he started to make his way back to St. Louis. It was getting late and he was getting tired. So he stopped in Springfield to rest for a bit and get some coffee at a fast food restaurant. “I met a minister and his wife and started talking to them about the caravan. I mentioned that I was tired and thought I should probably rest (and get a motel room). When I went to check in, it had been paid for by the minister.”

Ways to help

To make a cash donation, visit

If you prefer to send actual items, the YMCA in Carthage notes these as immediate needs:

• Blankets

• New underwear and socks for all ages, male and female

• Clothes for men, women and children

• Flip-flops and shoes

• Baby supplies

• Non-perishable food items

• Toiletry items

• Towels and washcloths

• Visa and MasterCard gift cards

Send items to: Fair Acres YMCA, 2600 Grand, Carthage, Mo.  64836, ATTN:  Joplin Disaster