‘Who by water’: For Carolina Jews coping with Hurricane Florence, High Holiday themes resonate

Ben Sales

(JTA) — When Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov took her North Carolina congregation on a Rosh Hashanah boat ride on the Cape Fear River, she hadn’t intended for the body of water’s name to be taken literally.

The Wilmington Reform synagogue was performing the ritual of tashlich, in which Jews throw pieces of bread into the water to symbolize the casting away of sins. But by the end of the boat ride on Monday, the passengers were talking about what to do if the water threatens to swallow them up.

Conversations turned from the Jewish New Year to Hurricane Florence, which was looming off the Carolina coast. Would they evacuate or hunker down?

Residents began preparing to leave town. Losben-Ostrov canceled the next day’s afternoon holiday programming at her Temple of Israel. On Thursday, the hurricane’s rain and wind began hitting the Carolina coast.

“People started talking about, ‘What are we going to do with the Torahs?’” Losben-Ostrov told JTA. “That fear was starting to set in. It was definitely ironic to be on the water at that time and to look around and feel the calm before the storm … and have a fear in our hearts that this incredible, wonderful community, we don’t know what’s going to be.”

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Florence, a Category 2 hurricane, started to hit the Carolinas on Thursday and will last through Sunday. Many of the residents in North and South Carolina — especially those who live in mandatory evacuation zones — have left town. Synagogues in two of the towns that are expected to be hit hardest, Wilmington and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, are canceling services over the weekend and hoping to be back for Yom Kippur next week.

Rabbis haven’t failed to see the connection between the natural disaster and the High Holidays, where the spiritual stakes are high and water is a prominent metaphorical device. Among the best-known lines of the holiday’s liturgy, from the Unetanah Tokef prayer, is “Who by water, and who by fire?”

Rabbi David Weissman of Myrtle Beach’s Reform Temple Shalom said a special prayer in advance of the hurricane on Monday, and will make it the focus of his Yom Kippur sermon. Rabbi Shlomo Elharar of the same town’s Orthodox Beth El Sephardic Jewish Center spoke in theological terms about the storm.

“We’re in exile,” Elharar said, referring to his evacuating congregation. “Most of the congregation has left the city. We’re waiting for the kindness of God. It’s an atmosphere of war. It reminds me of the Yom Kippur War.”

On the ground, Jewish residents are preparing much like their neighbors. Those who have been mandated to leave have headed to drier spots in Georgia, Florida or elsewhere. Phone trees, supplies and points of contact have been set up for elderly or infirm residents who are staying put. Those who are confident that their homes can withstand the storm are shuttering their windows and hoping for the best.

Jewish communities are following the example of cities like Houston, whose Jewish neighborhoods were ravaged by Hurricane Harvey last year: They’re locking up their synagogues or moving their Torahs to dry ground. They’re linking up with other Jewish communities, in Atlanta or Miami, that have offered to host evacuees. They’re making sure vulnerable residents are cared for. They’re coordinating with national Jewish organizations, like the Jewish Federations of North America or the aid groups IsraAid and Nechama, in advance of the storm’s aftermath.

“In these times, you realize you’re part of this community that’s so much bigger than your one local community,” said Judi Corsaro, CEO of the Charleston Jewish Federation in South Carolina.

Corsaro and another employee are remaining in town to help people even as others have left. She feels safe in her house.

“If it were life threatening, we would leave,” she said. “But it hasn’t been, and it feels good to be here. I’m not a hero, I’m not a martyr. It just makes sense to be here.”

But in Myrtle Beach and Wilmington, many residents have left, and Jewish leaders feel that all necessary precautions have been taken. Many of Elharar’s congregants left Myrtle Beach in a convoy of cars on Wednesday and headed south to Miami, where they are looking into renting rooms in the same hotel and holding Shabbat and Yom Kippur services there.

In Wilmington, Chabad Rabbi Moshe Yitzchak Lieblich says his house is on ground high enough to weather what comes. He has compiled a list of the community members who are in town and canceled services for this Shabbat.

“I don’t think anybody in their right mind should be out and about,” he said.

Weissman already is looking toward next week, when the storm is expected to pass. He’ll be speaking to his congregation about it on Yom Kippur. But he won’t be focusing on acts of God. Instead, he’ll talk about what people can do once the clouds have cleared.

“We can’t blame acts of nature on God,” he said, explaining the sermon’s theme. “Nature operates according to its own laws. Nature is neither moral nor immoral. Nature is amoral.

“God enters the picture to inspire us to deal with the hurricane, to inspire us to help people who are badly impacted by the hurricane and to provide ways to lessen the effects of future hurricanes.”