Sandy stories

NEW YORK (JTA) – A week after Sandy swept into New York with fierce winds, driving rain and a high tide for the history books, the city that houses the nation’s largest Jewish community is still picking up the pieces. JTA gathered these stories about Sandy’s destruction, the recovery and the remarkable tales of human kindness from around the storm zone.


Houses of prayer as places of refuge

Some synagogues in the stricken area have seen more congregants this week than during the High Holidays. Many come for prayer, but others have flocked to shuls for their offers of shelter, hot food, heat, electronics recharging, wireless internet and kids programming. Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, N.J. hosted a free pizza night, but the real draw for area residents was the offer to charge electronics. In White Plains, N.Y., in Westchester County, Jewish community members used an email listserv to trade information about which gas stations were open and where the lines were shortest. In Mahwah, N.J., locals packed into the social hall at Beth Haverim Shir Shalom to use tables set up with power strips so they could go online. “I’ve been using my synagogue social hall as an office,” Joe Berkofsky, managing director of communications for the Jewish Federations of North America, told JTA. “I’ve been powering things up and have been able to get some work done.”

Russian-American Jews unite

Russian Jewish Community activist Steve Asnes was in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn the night of the storm trying to help out neighbors when a sudden surge brought water careening through the streets and up to his neck, tells Mordechai Tokarsky, director of the Russian American Jewish Experience. Asnes managed to hang onto a piece of scaffolding until he could get to safety. At the nearby RAJE center, Michael Britan watched the center’s first floor turn into a swimming pool. The full extent of destruction became apparent only the next day. Cars lay on top of each other. The RAJE center was under 12 feet of water, its beit midrash study hall wrecked, and classrooms, offices, a boiler room and the elevator shaft all waterlogged. When community activists came to help clean up, they ended up spending much of the time at a high-rise apartment building across the street helping elderly residents trapped in their homes without power or hot water, according to Tokarsky. With the help of Esther Lamm, a RAJE alumna who heads the young leadership Russian division of UJA-Federation in New York, the volunteers quickly organized a command-and-control center that played a key role in relief efforts around the neighborhood. It will require a lot of work and help from private funders to get RAJE back up and running, Tokarsky said.

UJA-Federation comes up with $10 million

The lights were still out and the gas lines still miles long in parts of New York City when the UJA-Federation of New York announced on Monday that it was making $10 million available immediately to synagogues, Jewish day schools and federation agencies providing direct care and support in storm-hit communities. The money will go toward cash assistance, temporary housing, food and “whatever else is needed,” federation CEO John Ruskay told JTA. The unanimous decision was made in an emergency board meeting on Sunday night. The money will come from the federation’s endowment and reserves, and will be offset by any storm-related donations that come in. “The point of having reserves and an endowment is to enable our agencies, our synagogues and our community to respond to people at times like these,” Ruskay said. This is the largest-ever commitment of UJA-Federation funds for a natural disaster, according to Alisa Doctoroff, chairwoman of UJA-Federation of New York.

Schools destroyed

At almost any other time, it’s a point of pride to live in a neighborhood with the word “beach” in its name. In reckoning with Sandy’s destruction, however, the word is more likely to inspire dread. Two of the three campuses of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, on Long Island, reportedly suffered major damage, including at the boys high school, which was flooded. Though the elementary school is situated on the boardwalk in Long Beach, N.Y., the building reportedly escaped structural damage but was left with a mess. The 120-student Yeshiva of Belle Harbor was flooded beyond repair, the N.Y. Jewish Week reported. Water flooded past the ceilings of the first-floor classrooms, and by last Friday the school had decided to merge with the Crown Heights Yeshiva, in Brooklyn’s Mill Basin neighborhood, the paper reported. At Mazel Academy in Brooklyn, books, furniture, classrooms and Torah scrolls were destroyed in a building that was renovated just last year. At SAR Academy in the Bronx, the school managed to reopen despite no electricity by relocating classes to various neighborhood synagogues.

Help wanted

They came from Manhattan’s Upper West Side and went to buildings without power or heat on the Lower East Side. They baked challahs and distributed them around the city. They sent a bus to take residents of Far Rockaway, on New York’s Long Island, to Kemp Mill, Md. for a “relief Shabbos.” They started a clothing drive in Berlin. All over the world, volunteers mobilized to help out with storm relief. Some offered spiritual succor; a rabbi in Berkeley, Calif., composed a Sandy-inspired prayer beginning “Elohei ha-ruchot, God of the Winds.”

Chasidic superstar’s recording studio destroyed

When the surge hit the community of Sea Gate in Brooklyn, four or five feet of water ran through the streets from the ocean to the bay, leaving behind houses now condemned, a dramatically altered shoreline and destruction everywhere. In a YouTube video, Chasidic singer Mordechai Ben David offers a tour of his wet recording studio, where the water that submerged his equipment rose until the bottoms of pictures of rebbes hanging on his walls; then, it stopped. “Everyone that lives in Sea Gate got hit badly,” Ben David said. “But Baruch Hashem, we’re fine, we’re alive.”


The following Jewish organziations have announced the establishment of Funds for Hurricane Sandy relief:

Jewish United Fund (Chicago
UJA-Federation of New York Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund
Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Hurricane Relief Fund

Religious Organizations/Synagogues:
Chabad Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund
Orthodox Union (OU) Hurricane Relief Fund
Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Hurricane Relief Fund
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) Disaster Relief Fund


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