Community Dazed, Battered By Sandy


She was a political activist who had just started a teaching job at Bushwick High School for Social Justice. He was a student at Brooklyn College with a degree in theater design. Lifelong friends, they lived near each other in the Ditmas Park section of Brooklyn, though they were not dating. On Monday night, as the winds of Hurricane Sandy howled and the rain fell, Jessie Streich-Kest, 24, and Jacob Vogelman, 25, took Max, her mixed pit bull, for a walk in their neighborhood.

The young friends died in the dark of Brooklyn Monday night when a tree, its roots weakened by the storm, fell and pinned them underneath. Their bodies were not discovered until the next morning.

Streich-Kest and Vogelman were the only known members of the Jewish community who lost their lives in this week’s hurricane, which has claimed at least 18 New Yorkers.

She is to be buried on Sunday; details of his funeral arrangements were not settled by midweek.

The hurricane delivered a knockout punch here, damaging and destroying countless homes and business buildings, putting civic life on hold. Among the millions who were impacted by the storm, JTA reported that an estimated 139,000 Jewish households on Long Island were without power this week. Many of the other areas heavily affected by power outages — such as Manhattan below 34th Street, South Brooklyn and much of New Jersey, including Modern Orthodox hubs like Teaneck — are home to large Jewish communities.

Nearly all Jewish organizations in Manhattan, and in the outer boroughs near the water’s edge, closed down for several days, some re-opening by midweek, after the hurricane and its immediate danger passed. Like the public schools, Jewish day schools throughout the region were closed through Wednesday.

Neighborhoods like Manhattan’s Battery Park City and Brooklyn’s Sea Gate were subject to pre-storm evacuation orders, their residents leaving en masse and their Jewish organizations suspending all activities.

“Many of us have relocated to higher ground from our homes in Zone A,” those most susceptible to being damaged, Rabbi Darren Levine of Tamid NYC, a congregation serving Tribeca and Battery Park City, informed congregants in an e-mail notice. “Our Torah has been lovingly sealed in plastic” and stored in a safe location. The congregation, closed this week, plans to hold Shabbat services on Friday night in another downtown location.

The Jewish Community Project, an organization in Tribeca that offers a variety of programs, closed its early childhood center programs and Hebrew school, according to a message sent by the group’s board president, Susan Silverstein. “Depending upon need, we would dispatch members of our community and volunteer corps to assist in the aftermath.”
The Shorefront Y in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood, which had boarded up its windows, using pieces of plywood stored on the roof, remained closed on Wednesday because of a power outage. Despite rumors that the building was nearly destroyed, it “thankfully did not suffer any major damage,” its website announced.

A few blocks away, Mazel Day School — a school founded in 2002 by Russian Jewish parents — was not so fortunate. The first floor flooded completely, reported Dimitriy Goloborodskiy, a board member and parent.

“The school is in very bad shape,” he said in an e-mail interview, adding, “We are at a loss of what to do.”

The Kings Bay Y in the borough’s Sheepshead Bay section remained closed on Wednesday, and a new annex on Emmons Avenue, which was to open Monday night, suffered extensive damage, leaving it unfit for immediate use.
“We plan on beginning repairs as soon as we can get the water out of there; it was seven feet high this morning,” assistant director Ken Soloway reported on Wednesday. “The entire basement/garage of the building got flooded.”
On Tuesday morning, Yanky Meyer, director of the Brooklyn-based Misaskim emergency crisis organization, helped shepherd some holdouts from Sea Gate, a gated community that borders on Gravesend Bay, to safety inland.

Standing at the doors of a pair of school buses donated for the day by Brooklyn yeshivot, he coordinated the volunteers from his organization — and from the Hatzalah volunteer ambulance corps — who were assisting several dozen members of the Jewish community who had remained in their homes despite pleas from city officials to evacuate.
Sea Gate was one of the hardest hit areas of New York, its homes shattered, windows broken, belongings washed away. It has several Orthodox synagogues, all of which suffered extensive water damage, Meyer said.

“It was a war zone. There was debris everywhere,” Meyer told The Jewish Week. The people, of “all ages,” including many aging Holocaust survivors, came almost empty-handed, some gripping paper shopping bags filled with “emergency” items.

The buses took the displaced Sea Gate residences to relatives and synagogues in Borough Park that had offered shelter until it’s safe to return to their homes.

Unlike the stubborn Sea Gate residents helped by Misaskim, many had earlier left there for safer, drier locations, and hundreds of elderly Jews elsewhere in the region were part of a coordinated evacuation effort.

A 12-member crew spent most of Sunday afternoon moving and protecting several vulnerable artifacts at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, said Betsy Aldredge, public relations manager. After the hurricane’s height on Monday, maintenance workers reported water in the basement and in the switch room, Aldredge said.

The museum, located in Battery Park City on the shore of the New York harbor, had sandbagged its entrances on Sunday and remained closed on Wednesday. Some prominent uptown Jewish institutions as the JCC in Manhattan and the 92nd Street Y announced that they hoped to resume some programming later in the week.

Hundreds of members of the Jewish community in areas at risk of flooding took part in evacuations on Sunday, some by themselves, some with the help of community organizations, said David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. That included five sheltered residences for senior citizens under the auspices of JASA — two in Far Rockaway, Queens, and three in southern Brooklyn — and a growing community of émigrés from the former Soviet Union who live in southern and eastern Staten Island.

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said many long-planned events like weddings and bar-bat mitzvah parties had to be called off or postponed on Sunday and Monday, and Jewish families who suffered a loss on those days were unable to arrange an immediate burial. “We can’t find any cemeteries that are open,” Rabbi Potasnik said.

“We were prepared” for the hurricane, said Rabbi Potasnik, who had helped guide the community’s response to Hurricane Irene last year. He said the growing prominence of e-mails, texting and social media enabled participants in the community’s rescue effort to easily communicate with each other, especially when land lines and cell phones were not working.

“For many trapped in New York and other Northeastern cities … social media outlets — principally Facebook and Twitter — instantly transformed into lifelines, enabling residents to commiserate, appeal for help (or offer some) and share information,” JTA reported.

It is too early to estimate the financial cost of the damage suffered this week by the Jewish community, Pollock said.
In the Bronx, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale issued an e-mail notice on Monday that a member of the congregation, who was sitting shiva this week, needed a quorum of worshippers for that day’s afternoon Mincha prayer service. The synagogue probably feared that a minyan would not turn out for the member’s 1:30 p.m. service, which would be in addition to HIR’s regular Mincha later that day, said a member of the congregation who drove to the member’s home.
About 40 other Jews from Riverdale showed up too, said the HIR member, who asked not to be identified. Members from several Riverdale congregations came. “Everyone figured that no one else would show up. I think most people drove.”

The weather that afternoon was not pleasant. “It wasn’t pouring,” the HIR member said. “It was blowing like crazy. There were limbs falling down.”

Soloway of the Kings Bay Y said he was inundated this week with messages of support from Y members and members of the wider Jewish community, many offering assistance. “This is bringing us together,” he said. Soloway said the Y may offer some sort of follow-up program to sustain that camaraderie. “Something good has to come out of this.”
The Riverdale Y, which was closed on Monday and Tuesday, opened its bathrooms and showers on Tuesday to members of the community, who had lost electric power, to use the Y facilities and recharge their sell phones.

“A crisis brings out the best in people who think about welfare of others even when they are hurting,” Rabbi Potasnik said.

The hurricane is likely to be the stuff of sermons in the coming days, the rabbi noted. “Whenever major event happens, we as rabbis immediately ask, ‘Is there a sermon here?’”

Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of Park Slope’s Congregation Kolot Chayeinu, where Streich-Kest’s parents are longtime members, said she will talk about the citywide crisis and her synagogue’s personal tragedy on Shabbat.

The rabbi remembered Streich-Kest as a “very lively and engaged” young woman, “a leader among her peers.” She was “one of the very few kids who gave up her sports activities” — in this case, soccer — “to focus on her training for her bar mitzvah.”

Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim, where the family of Vogelman belongs, described Jacob as a “sweet, kind young man — he always had a smile.” Jacob had been an active member of the congregation’s youth group, after-school and summer camp programs, the rabbi said.

Like Rabbi Lippmann, Rabbi Bachman will officiate in the coming days at the funeral of a young congregant he has known for more than a decade.

For most New Yorkers, the period of healing continues this week. For two Jewish families, shiva is just beginning.