‘I Saw Houses Turned Over’


Philip Gelman knew, even before he stepped on a Tegucigalpa-bound American Airlines flight last week, that the synagogue and most other buildings in the capital of Honduras had suffered heavy damage during Hurricane Mitch.But he wasn’t prepared to see it.

“Fortunately, it was dark” when the Manhattan native, president of the Jewish community in Tegucigalpa, returned to Honduras. “Part of me really didn’t want to see what was here.”

Gelman, 36, a project manager for CARE, had been visiting his parents here to prepare for his upcoming wedding.

When daylight came, he saw that the one-story synagogue was in ruins from the massive hurricane that struck Central America two weeks ago.

“We have basically three walls and that’s it — no windows, no doors,” he told The Jewish Week in a phone interview Monday at the end of a 15-hour working day. He returned with his fiance to Tegucigalpa on the first available flight to help coordinate CARE’s relief effort.

Several local and national Jewish organizations are taking part in the campaign to raise money and supplies for Central America’s general and Jewish communities. (See box.)

Although physical damage was widespread throughout the area, no Central American Jews, as far as is known, died during the hurricane. The affected communities include Costa Rica (2,500 Jews), El Salvador (120), Guatemala (1,200), Nicaragua (10) and Panama (7,000).

In Panama City, “Thank God nothing happened,” said Fradel Laine, a Chabad emissary. The worst damage occurred south of the capital, she said.“Honduras was the worst” — the country most damaged by the hurricane, Gelman said. “Literally, I saw houses turned over.”

An estimated 7,000 Hondurans were killed by the storm and 11,000 are still missing. About 40 percent of the country’s 5 million residents were left homeless.

Some 10,000 people were reported killed in Central America. Hurricane Mitch was called the region’s strongest in two centuries.

Water, which had flooded Tegucigalpa during three days of incessant rainfall, knocked over one wall of the synagogue, “which made the roof fall in,” Gelman said. He also observed “watermarks up to roof level.” The prayerbooks and chumashim, tefillin sets and tallitot were destroyed, as were the bima and ark.

One Torah scroll was lost — “literally lost … it floated away,” Gelman said, “and the other was severely damaged.”

After a prayer service in a private home the night Gelman went back to Honduras, members of the 40-family Jewish community, which had held worship services in a rented hotel room for decades, pledged to rebuild their synagogue. The now-ruined structure, a converted home, had been in use for only a year.

“There is a firm commitment that it is indispensable for us to rebuild,” Gelman said.

The community, which raised about $60,000 to buy and refurbish the synagogue, is mounting a fund-raising effort to rebuild. A simple structure will cost at least $70,000, but Gelman says “We would clearly like to go beyond that.” He has lived in Honduras a year and a half after an earlier stint there during the mid-1990s.

He wrote a letter about the destruction that was circulated among the Jewish communities of Central America. A rabbi in Mexico said he will replace the synagogue’s religious items — except for the Torah scrolls, Gelman said.

And Gelman e-mailed an English-language translation of the letter to his parents, Evelyn and Milt, who have sent copies to 175 friends and relatives across the United States. Rabbi David Lincoln of the Park Avenue Synagogue on the Upper East Side, where the Gelman family belongs, described the damage during his Shabbat sermon this week.

“Many people came up after services and said ‘I want to help. What can I do?’ ” Evelyn Gelman says. She and her husband, who have received 50 kipas to replace all the head coverings ruined in the flood, will distribute literature during Mitzvah Day at Park Avenue Synagogue on Sunday.

Jewish groups taking part in the national relief effort include the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and American Jewish World Service. The JDC will concentrate on both the intermediate and long-term needs of the survivors, said Will Recant, director of special projects.

AJWS had received $40,000 as of last week, according to president Ruth Messinger.

“We’re hearing from people who want to contribute their expertise, money or supplies, and we’re acting as a liaison between Honduran and Nicaraguan groups and Jewish organizations that want to donate canned food, clothing or supplies,” Messinger said. “One man walked into the office and wrote us a check for $1,000. Another called to see if shoes were needed — he owns a shoe factory.”

Temple Beth Torah in Westbury, L.I., is raising money for Honduran Jewry at the urging of Marvin Rembo, a congregant who has a business in the city of San Pedro Sula and spends half his time there. Beth Torah, a Conservative congregation, has a twinning arrangement with Templo Maguen David.

“Thank God we had no damage to our synagogue in San Pedro Sula, and all members of the community came out pretty well,” Rembo said.Gelman says Honduras will not “recover any time soon.”

“You either know someone who was killed or someone who is missing or someone who lost everything,” he said.

His wedding on Dec. 20 is still on. His aufruf the previous Shabbat will take place in the hotel where the synagogue is meeting now — “the same hotel we had historically used.”

And the ceremony itself will take place in a restaurant, as scheduled.“I haven’t had time,” Gelman says, “to call the restaurant to make sure it’s still there.” The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this story.