Deluged day school, ruined Torahs and devastated communities left in Sandy’s wake

Torah At Mazel Academy in Brooklyn, Torah scrolls were unrolled to dry after being damaged by the floodwaters from Hurricane Sandy, Oct. 31, 2012. (Ben Harris)

Torah
At Mazel Academy in Brooklyn, Torah scrolls were unrolled to dry after being damaged by the floodwaters from Hurricane Sandy, Oct. 31, 2012. (Ben Harris)

NEW YORK (JTA) — When Rabbi Avremel Okonov arrived Tuesday morning at the school he co-founded 10 years ago in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, the water in the basement had already receded from the high water mark. It only came up to his knees.

Everywhere he looked around his school, Mazel Academy, there was destruction. On the walls of the school’s lower level, which sits several feet below the street and just blocks from the Brooklyn waterfront, he could see the mark where the water level had risen. It was at head level.

Four pumps had run for several hours to rid Mazel Academy of water. On Wednesday, as the cleanup effort began to make headway, several puddles of water remained and the stench of seawater was inescapable. Hundreds of waterlogged prayerbooks were laid out on tables in the vestibule and piles of black trash bags lined the sidewalk filled with papers, books and other supplies destroyed by the surge of Hurricane Sandy.

But it was in the main sanctuary of an old synagogue now used by the school that the most poignant image was on display. Six Torah scrolls, stored during the storm in a safe on the lower level, were fully unrolled to dry, their parchment blotched and black lettering distorted by the floodwaters.

A volunteer helping clean up at the Mazel Academy Brooklyn after floodwaters from Hurricane Sandy destroyed the school's ground floor, Oct. 31, 2012.  (Ben Harris)

A volunteer helping clean up at the Mazel Academy Brooklyn after floodwaters from Hurricane Sandy destroyed the school’s ground floor, Oct. 31, 2012. (Ben Harris)

“We’re drying them out,” said Okonov, the school’s executive director. “But I’m looking closely — a lot of these pages, it’s not reparable. This is just heartbreaking to look at.”

Across southern Brooklyn on Wednesday, residents took stock of the devastation wrought by the most destructive natural disaster in memory to hit New York. Downed trees blocked countless roads, and the sound of generators powering pumps could be heard on virtually every block in Brighton Beach as residents labored to dry out their basements.

Without electricity to power signal lights, traffic was perpetually snarled. And with temperatures predicted to drop with the sun, residents were bracing for another cold night without heat.

In the nearby Brooklyn neighborhood of Manhattan Beach, where the storm had left streets covered with sand and thick black muck, a lone worker shoveled water and debris from the entryway of Temple Beth-El. Across the street, an elderly rabbi who had taken shelter during the storm with a family member was discussing the cleanup with a contractor.

The cost of post-storm reconstruction in the region will take weeks to assess, but estimates suggest that the costs for the New York area will be in the tens of billions of dollars.

“We still didn’t get through to our [insurance] broker,” Okonov said. “Our insurance papers are underwater. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

The storm known as Sandy took dead aim on Monday at some of the most populous regions of the country, home to tens of millions of people as well as the nation’s largest Jewish communities. As the floodwaters rose from the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound, dozens of Jewish communities were besieged.

With electricity and phone service still spotty in affected areas as the week wore on, it was difficult to fully gauge the storm’s impact on local Jewish communities. Calls to Jewish agencies across the Northeast only occasionally went through — and even then, more often than not, were answered only by voicemail.

Jewish Federations of North America, which later this month is expected to host more than 3,000 people in Baltimore for its annual General Assembly, was shuttered, its headquarters in the flood zone in lower Manhattan. The umbrella group’s president, Jerry Silverman, was stuck overseas, unable to get a flight back to the New York area, and early in the week even emails to federation officials were coming back undeliverable.

Over in New Jersey, where the worst of the storm’s impact was felt, some local federations were silent, too.

“We haven’t been able to get through to a couple” of local federations, said Steven Woolf, who is helping coordinate the response for the Jewish Federations of North America. “Unfortunately, we don’t have real accurate reports because of the evacuations and because people have not gone back to do actual surveys of the damage.”

On Tuesday, many Jewish organizations began responding in earnest. Several of the largest — including Jewish Federations of North America, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and B’nai B’rith International — set up funds to help the victims. Others helped organize volunteers to aid in the relief effort.

But little could be done, at least in the short term, to alleviate the human loss and suffering caused by the storm.

Rabbi Avremel Okonov indicating the level reached by the floodwaters of Hurricane Sandy at Mazel Academy in Brooklyn, Oct. 31, 2012.  (Ben Harris)

Rabbi Avremel Okonov indicating the level reached by the floodwaters of Hurricane Sandy at Mazel Academy in Brooklyn, Oct. 31, 2012. (Ben Harris)

“Lots and lots of seniors who didn’t evacuate are stuck in the dark, with no refrigeration, no elevators, and no stores open anywhere within walking distance,” Lenny Gusel, a Russian Jewish activist who had visited Brighton Beach, wrote in an email early Wednesday morning. Gusel urged his fellow Russian Jews to come help, noting that some elderly residents couldn’t easily leave their buildings without elevator service. (On Wednesday evening, Con Edison, the local power company, announced that it had restored power to the Brighton Beach area, though it noted that some buildings may still be without electricity due to flooding or storm damage.)

At Mazel Academy, Okonov tried to put on a brave face Wednesday, but the hurt was palpable. He helped start the academy 10 years ago with three students. Today, he has 140, drawn mostly from the ranks of secular Russian Jews that settled in Brighton Beach and surrounding areas. With the school growing rapidly, he had renovated the school’s ground floor just last year.

Now, everything they had built was ruined.

“Everything is brand new,” Okonov said, gesturing toward the recently laid floors and new furniture, all of it waterlogged and beyond repair. “Here we go again.”

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