Australian Jews evacuating in face of huge floods

Rabbi Levi Jaffe of the Brisbane Hebrew Congregation helping a wheelchair-using Jewish woman evacuate from Australia’s third-largest city, Jan. 12, 2011. (Rabbi Levi Jaffe)

By Dan Goldberg, JTA SYDNEY, Australia

At least a dozen Jewish families in northeastern Australia have been evacuated from their homes as a major flood ripped through Queensland this week, killing at least 12 people.

More than 40 people are still missing, and one Jewish man remains unaccounted for near the rural town of Toowoomba, which was flattened Monday by what police described as an “inland instant tsunami.”

The bulk of Queensland’s 6,000 Jews live in the state’s capital, Brisbane, which was bracing for its river to peak early Thursday morning as analysts revised up their predictions of the damage bill to $13 million, or 1 percent of the gross domestic product.

Three-quarters of the state, an area larger than California and Texas, has been declared a disaster zone, with Premier Anna Bligh describing it as the “worst natural disaster in our history.” Prime Minister Julia Gillard deployed the army to assist in the rescue efforts.

Jason Steinberg, the president of the Queensland Jewish Board of Deputies, said that “A number of Jewish families have been impacted, a lot are reporting difficulties. We are still trying to get details. There have been Jewish people evacuated from several towns. We are trying to assess their needs.

“Homes are being evacuated as a precautionary measure. It’s an amazing sight,” said Steinberg, of Brisbane, Australia’s third-largest city. “Where you once had a clear road, it’s a lake. The major arterial roads around Brisbane are now cut off.”

He added that “The main shul is OK. The second shul is fine and the temple is fine.”

Rabbi Levi Jaffe of the Brisbane Hebrew Congregation transferred four Torah scrolls to his house, which is on higher ground.

“It’s just a precaution,” said the Chabad rabbi. “In the 1974 floods, the water didn’t reach the shul. We’re hopeful it won’t.”

Jaffe said services have been canceled this week but he would be holding prayers for the 200-member families at his house.

“We are bracing. They’re saying the worst is yet to come,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. I stocked up to an extent, but at the supermarket the shelves are completely empty of basic staples. People are quite concerned; there’s a bit of a siege mentality.”

The rabbi said he and his sons helped evacuate a Jewish couple from their high-rise inner-city apartment Wednesday afternoon amid fears that the electricity would be cut, leaving the wheelchair-using woman unable to escape.

“The chances of water reaching them was very high and their family in Melbourne was really worried, so we helped them evacuate,” Jaffe said.

Ari Heber of the response unit at Queensland Jewish Community Services said the agency has identified a dozen homes in Brisbane that it believes will go under.

“We are not aware of anyone officially missing, we just don’t know where people are at the moment and communications are difficult,” he said.

“Everyone is frightened. It’s quite scary, the volume of water the water is quite high and the speed is phenomenal. Tomorrow [Thursday] is going to be the worst, everyone has time to plan. It’s a very surreal situation just waiting for the water to arrive.”

Executive Council of Australian Jewry president Dr. Danny Lamm called on Jewish Australians to give generously to assist victims of the floods.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with them [the casualties] and their families”, he said, appealing to the Jewish community “to dig deep.”

In Sydney, a food kitchen run by Chabad began preparing supplies to be transferred to Jewish families in Queensland.

Rabbi Moshe Loebenstein of the Melbourne-based Chabad of Rural and Regional Australia said he was organizing Melbourne and Sydney families to host affected Jewish families and was sending up dry goods, clothing and towels.