Jews in South Florida Assessing Damage from Hurricane Andrew

It took less than four hours for Hurricane Andrew to sweep through Dade County, causing more than $20 billion worth of damage. But it will be months before many residents restore their lives to prestorm normalcy.

South Dade was hit the hardest and this week, members of the Jewish community were still trying to get in touch with family, friends and fellow congregants.

In the aftermath of the storm on Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of Dade County residents remained without shelter, nearly 1 million went without electricity and safe water.

South Dade looked like a war zone; devastated businesses were closed, light poles toppled, trees uprooted, street signs crushed, roofs ripped off and traffic lights lay sprawled on the ground.

Traffic moved slowly; downed electrical wires, onlookers and malfunctioning traffic lights made driving hazardous.

In the Kendall area of South Dade, Bet Shira Congregation’s 4-year-old synagogue complex was demolished. The roof collapsed, the carpet was drenched, a wall separating the sanctuary from the nursery school was torn apart and the French doors separating the quadrants of the synagogue were ripped from their hinges — with some glass panels broken.

“I’ve never seen devastation like this in South Dade, and I’ve been through Hurricane Donna” in 1960, said Rabbi Edwin Farber of Temple Samu-El Or Olom in Miami. Even with $200,000 to $400,000 worth of damage to the sanctuary, Farber feels Samu-El Or Olom fared not badly, considering the degree of damage in the area.

‘NOTHING THAT IS NOT REPAIRABLE’

“Like much of South Dade, we are just facing inconvenience and discomfort,” he said. “But there is nothing that is not repairable within an acceptable period of time. Considering the rest of the neighborhood, we’re pretty lucky.”

Samu-El Or Olom will have no services this Shabbat and a bar mitzvah planned for this weekend has been postponed.

Farber hopes the synagogue will be functioning within 30 days. However, High Holy Day services might need to be held elsewhere. School will begin next week.

B’nai Torah of Boca Raton in Palm Beach County has offered to help the synagogue with a loan and its congregants with generators, wet vacuums, plywood, fuel, food, propane, gas stoves, batteries and lanterns.

Farther south, outside of Miami, two synagogues in hard-hit Homestead — B’nai Israel and Greater Miami Youth Synagogue in Naranja and the Homestead Jewish Center — were unreachable by phone. Some news reports claimed that the Homestead Jewish Center had been destroyed.

“If you have seen only television, or pictures in the newspaper, you have no clue” as to the damage done by Hurricane Andrew in South Dade County, insisted Maurica Sisk. Manager of Federation Gardens, a housing project for the elderly in Miami, Sisk was an eyewitness to some of the destruction.

Although Federation Gardens suffered, “we were fortunate. I came back from seeing the damage where my kids live, in Country Walk — where they did live — there were two walls of a whole house (left). I think the whole area is devastated.”

Andrew blew out the windows in about 16 of the 159 units, knocked out electric power and water service to the two four-story buildings, and “the force of the storm blew out the window of a corner apartment, then moved the wall three feet out into the hallway,” Sisk noted.

‘DOESN’T LOOK LIKE IT DID BEFORE’

Although the Gardens suffered at least tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage, no one was injured. Of the facility and its neighborhood, Sisk said: “It was beautiful. It’s still beautiful, but it doesn’t look like it did before.”

The Miami Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged at Douglas Gardens also does not look like it did before. It is just north of downtown Miami and outside the hurricane’s main line of attack.

None of the hundreds of residents and clients was injured. Nevertheless, Andrew “ravaged the grounds,” said Jay Sweeney, director of public relations and marketing.

“Thankfully, the residents and clients are pulling through well,” Sweeney added. He noted that some staffers and volunteers began coming in on Saturday and Sunday and stayed at the facility throughout the storm and its immediate aftermath.

On Miami Beach, Mount Sinai was the only hospital to stay open during the hurricane watch, the storm itself and the days just after, spokesperson Gail Farber said. Mount Sinai did close to non-emergency admissions for one day, due to lack of water and air conditioning, she said.

The hospital sent a team of physicians to assist the Metro-Dade Fire and Rescue Center.

Also on Miami Beach, Rabbi Sheldon Ever of Agudath Israel Hebrew Institute found that the storm caused “some roof seepage.”

But the small Orthodox congregation “carried on as usual,” Ever said. “The old-timers came (Tuesday) afternoon for services, and this morning.” Electric power was restored by 8 p.m. Tuesday. Shabbat services were to be held on schedule.

Temple Israel of Greater Miami is organizing aid to those residents affected in the south. However, Rabbi Rex Perlmeter said more concrete help can be arranged once temples can get in touch with each other.

‘WE’RE FLYING SOLO’

“Right now, we’re flying solo. We don’t know what’s happening,” he said. “I hope other churches and synagogues can help out and congregations can pair up.”

In the meantime, Perlmeter encourages his congregants, as well as all South Floridians, to attend services where available this Shabbat.

Temple Israel suffered minor damage and is without electricity, but Perlmeter said there will be services Friday evening even if congregants have to meet outside.

Perlmeter said churches and synagogues should be a “place for people of like faith to share the strength and comfort of faith, the renewal of ideas, and the exchange of information and plans.

“Within our congregational families, we feel tremendous anxiety about those we have been unable to contact, and a great urge to join with those we have,” Perlmeter said.

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