New York’s Jewish community, like the rest of the city, did not panic when the nation’s biggest power blackout struck last week.
It went al fresco.
At Congregation Shomrei Shabes, a shtiebel on 13th Avenue in Brooklyn’s Borough Park section that offers prayer minyans on a virtual 24-hours-a-day schedule, worshippers took their siddurim outside when the lights went out Thursday afternoon; services continued on the street, in small groups that did not inconvenience pedestrians, until electricity was restored the next day. At Dougie’s Barbecue restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the sidewalk of West 72nd Street became an instant outdoor cafe for kosher customers; management, with gas and charcoal grills still in service, fed a growing crowd through the evening. At synagogues and wedding halls around the metropolitan New York area, there were reports of wedding ceremonies quickly rescheduled under the stars that night; other chuppahs were held inside, lit by generators and candles.
For all New Yorkers, and for millions of residents of the northeast United States and southeast Canada who found themselves without electric power (and often without phone service) during the Blackout of 2003, an inconvenience became a test.
Individuals and many institutions passed the test, observers say, but last week’s events pointed out, in some cases, a continuing state of unpreparedness, first highlighted by the 9-11 terrorism attacks on the United States two years ago, to deal with an emergency. While relieved that the blackout was caused by technology, not terrorism, the Jewish community, like other Americans, saw its vulnerability.
"We realized that we were really not prepared for a crisis of this kind," said David Gad-Harf, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Detroit, who called the power failure a "wake-up call not only for the Jewish community, but for America as a whole."
With power out, many local and national Jewish organizations were isolated, unable to communicate by e-mail on computers or by cellular phones. "We learned how completely dependent on electricity we are," said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the New York-based Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
"This is something that reminded us that emergency preparedness is critical," said David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. The JCRC mid-Manhattan offices (and other local Jewish organizations) were ready for a loss of electricity, with such items as water and flashlights on hand, Pollock said. "Because of 9-11," when utilities became unavailable on short notice, "we have good emergency plans."
"As a community, we did OK," Pollock said. "People coped. It seemed to be an inconvenience rather than a disaster."
"Every agency with whom I’ve spoken was better prepared and had a better system in place than we did on 9-11," said John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York, who urged Jewish agencies to develop backup means of communication that will operate in an emergency.
"After 9-11, we learned," said Misha Avramoff, co-director of Project Ezra, which serves the frail elderly on the Lower East Side. Project Ezra now twice a year gives its clients boxes that contain such emergency items as candles, bottles of water and non-perishable crackers.
Two Project Ezra staffers walked to work Friday morning, he said, checking up on the elderly who had been unable to return to their apartments the previous day and offering to do shopping.
Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn Heights opened its doors, as it did on 9-11, to people streaming over the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan, said its rabbi, Joseph Potasnik. Synagogue members and non-Jewish volunteers from the area passed out bottles of water and tried to arrange transportation for the stranded. The congregation let the hikers rest in the sanctuary, illuminated by candlelight, and use the bathrooms, he said, adding, "I’m sure other shuls did the same thing."
At Jewish senior citizens homes in Detroit and Toronto, volunteers climbed dozens of flights of stairs to deliver prearranged meals, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, spray-painted graffiti (including a foot-long swastika) was discovered Friday morning at the Hillel Foundation building, said Michael Brooks, Hillel’s director. Vandals also defaced the First Presbyterian Church next door, he said, adding that police posted a $500 reward. "I’m here 23 years and this is the first time that something like this has happened," he said. "When the lights go out, the rats tend to come out of the sewers."
Around New York, people used their wits to handle the blackout.
With traffic lights out, men in the traditional white shirts and black pants of the Orthodox directed traffic on the crowded thoroughfares of Borough Park and Flatbush, residents of the communities told the Jewish Week.
On the Williamsburg side of the Williamsburg Bridge, a Chasidic man stood on the traffic barriers, yelling "Water, water for everybody!," to the sweaty pedestrians. His friends, also Chasidic men, were passing out cups of Poland Spring bottled water. "It was sweltering," says one woman, who was walking from her office in lower Manhattan to her home in Brooklyn. "They couldn’t pass it out fast enough."
Other members of Williamsburg’s largely Satmar community were offering rides to strangers, the woman said. "Angels of mercy," she called the men.
Park East Synagogue on the Upper East Side moved its early mincha-maariv service Thursday evening and shacharit the next morning to a "skyline" next to a row of windows in the day school, to make use of natural light, said Rabbi Arthur Schneier.
The 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side, after evacuating the building and arranging cab rides home for disabled members, turned its attention to the 150 young visitors and college students who live in a pair of residence halls. They were first escorted down the stairs ("We had lots of flashlights and lanterns," said Eleanor Goldhar, who handles external affairs) and then steered to yoga mats set up in the art gallery and lounge.
"We kept them entertained," using board games and cards from the children’s center, and kept the young adults fed, using IOUs to make purchases at neighborhood groceries and restaurants, Goldhar said.
At Camp Monroe, a non-denominational kosher camp in Orange County, staff members parked their cars around the grounds with the lights on to brighten the paths, and campers brought buckets of water from the lake to keep their cabins’ toilets working. Thursday night’s Junior Prom, an end-of-session social event, took place, as scheduled, in the gym: a small generator provided lights. "The kids said it was the best prom they ever had," camp director Stanley Felsinger said.
On Friday Felsinger posted signs around the camp with that Shabbat’s theme: "Plug Into Shabbos."
The organizers of last week’s JCC North American Maccabi Games, hosted by the Jewish Community Center on the Palisades in northern New Jersey, were making last minute arrangements for the athletic competition when the blackout began. The planners kept planning. "We … knew that we had 1,800 kids that are depending on us … so we had to do what we had to do," said Lenny Silberman, Games director.
The Maccabi, which had its opening ceremonies on Sunday and was scheduled to continue until today, began with no difficulties.
An interfaith mission from Akron, Ohio, was about to return from Washington. Michael Wise, chief executive officer of the Jewish Community Board of Akron, used cell phones to book the group a flight to Pittsburgh and arrange for a bus from Akron’s JCC to meet the travelers at the Pittsburgh airport. They got back to Akron only five hours late.
And at our own offices on Times Square, several members of The Jewish Week editorial and advertising staff spent Thursday night camped out on couches and on the floor. They used flashlights for a while in the dark rooms. As night fell, they turned to a traditional source of light ó a menorah and last year’s Chanukah candles.
With reporting by JTA and Jewish Week staff writer Stewart Ain.