A White Sukkot



The scholars of the Talmud, concerned about the welfare of the Jewish people, debated the meteorological conditions that exempt one from eating a meal in a sukkah.

"They talk about rain," says Rabbi Mordechai Friedfertig.

No one talks about a sukkah filled with two feet of snow: which happened last week to Rabbi Friedfertig, spiritual leader of Kehillat Ohr Tzion, a small Modern Orthodox congregation in Williamsville, a northern suburb of Buffalo.

And no one talks about a sukkah that collapses under a heavy load of snow: which happened to all of the rabbi’s congregants.

"Everyone’s sukkah in the shul was completely destroyed" by the nearly two feet of wet snow, an October record for snowy Buffalo, and by the leaf-laden tree limbs that collapsed during the deluge, on traditional Columbus Day, a day before the start of the Shemini Atzeret-Simchat Torah holiday weekend.

The storm immobilized Buffalo and its northern suburbs for several days, closing Jewish day schools and supplementary schools, suspending activities at the Jewish Community Center, and damaging trees at the Westwood Country Club.

Rabbi Friedfertig and representatives of other Jewish organizations responded to the freak blizzard (which wrecked hundreds of thousands of trees and brought down an estimated millions of tons of branches throughout the affected areas, felled telephone and power wires, and left most of Erie County shivering in darkness) as snow-accustomed Buffalonians do, by sharing gas-powered electrical generators and gas stoves, by inviting neighbors and strangers into the occasional still-warm home for meals, and by helping to move the man-high piles of branches to crowded curbs.

"It’s Buffalo: we’re used to this stuff," says Daniel Kantor, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo. Staffers of the federation and its constituent agencies made telephone calls, when service was available, to check on isolated, elderly members of the community. Volunteers from the Jewish Discovery Center, an educational organization, cooked kosher meals and distributed them for free to people unable to do their own cooking. Members of Young Israel of Greater Buffalo helped Rabbi Moshe Taub rescue his collection of holy texts from the waters that were flooding his basement.

No Jewish institutions in the Buffalo area suffered heavy damage in the storm, Kantor says.

Because of a driving ban imposed for the days after the snowfall in Amherst, the suburb where most of the area’s Jewish population lives, Shabbat and holiday services at most synagogues were called off.

At Young Israel, electrical power was restored at 6:15 p.m. on Friday, as members were arriving for mincha.

At unheated Temple Shaarey Zedek, a Conservative congregation, "the hakafot" (the Simchat Torah circling of the sanctuary, Torah scrolls in hand) "were a little less exuberant" than usual, says Rabbi Charles Shalman.

Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld of Temple Beth Zion, a Reform synagogue, says last week’s snowstorm was more damaging than those he experienced while serving 16 years at a congregation in Anchorage, Alaska. "In Anchorage," he says, "we did not have this kind of blackout."

Many members of the Jewish community resorted to 24-hour yahrzeit candles for light during the blackout, which lasted for more than a week in some neighborhoods.

Buffalo’s handful of Orthodox congregation, whose members walk to Shabbat and holiday services, went ahead with yom tov davening, usually with small crowds who worshipped while bundled in their winter coats against the chill.

"Just like the Old Country: no light, no heat," says Paul Kuritzky, a member of Ohr Tzion.

Rabbi Friedfertig, whose congregation held morning services each day of the weekend holiday, says he answered several snow-related questions, over the phone and in shul, from members of his congregation. Next year, he says, this will be a distant memory. He and his wife Lori and their three young children plan to make aliyah (a longstanding ambition) in June. "Next Sukkot," the rabbi says, "I know what I won’t be doing."