‘When Can We Go Home?’


Three short blocks from Jamaica Bay, inside the Young Israel of Wavecrest and Bayswater, Tova Weiss, a mother of six, ate lunch one afternoon this week in an atmosphere that had suddenly become unfamiliar — a warm room.

Her home, two blocks away, became uninhabitable last week as a result of damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.

“We have no heat, no electricity,” Weiss said, sitting at a table in the sanctuary of the synagogue, which, relatively unscathed by the storm, had turned into a command center for scores of local volunteers. On one side of a wall-to-ceiling barricade that divided the sanctuary, warm kosher meals have been served to displaced residents of all races and religions three times a day since Sandy struck; on the other side, stood piles of clothing donated by the Jewish communities of Borough Park and Monsey and other places.

With the financial help of UJA-Federation and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, Young Israel and Far Rockaway’s White Shul both operated command centers coordinating the efforts of a few hundred local volunteers. In addition, the Sh’or Yoshuv yeshiva, also in Far Rockaway, operated a similar command center. Some of the work was under the aegis of various synagogues and yeshivot, the Achiezer community resource center and the Jewish Community Council of the Rockaways Peninsula; some was simply done by members of the community who reached out to their neighbors.

An estimate of the physical damage suffered last week by Jewish institutions in the Greater New York area is not available yet, said William Rapfogel, executive director of Met Council, but the total will probably reach “tens of millions” of dollars. At least a dozen synagogues and other Jewish buildings — including the Agudah of Bayswater — are known to have suffered damage that leaves them unusable for the near future, Rapfogel said. Met Council will sponsor an engineer’s briefing in a few weeks for leaders of institutions that need substantial repairs, he said.

The financial picture is complicated by the lack of knowledge of which institutions carried sufficient insurance to finance their renovations.

A wide variety of local and national Jewish institutions initiated fundraising efforts on behalf of the city’s Jewish community. Most prominent is UJA-Federation, which opened a Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund, authorizing up to $10 million for the philanthropy’s “front-line” network agencies, and for synagogues and day schools.

The largest allocation ever in response to a natural disaster, the UJA-Federation funds are intended to allow the charity’s network of social service agencies to continue their extensive emergency assistance and know “we would be there to back them up and cover their expenses,” noted John Ruskay, UJA-Federation’s executive vice president and CEO. (See story, page 28)

While many have suffered severe damage to their homes, in Bayswater, Tova Weiss’ needs were relatively modest — a place to warm up when she comes back to Bayswater each day to start cleaning up her three-story home, which suffered two inches of sewage in the basement.

(The family has been staying with various friends and relatives throughout the New York area.)

Weiss is also doing volunteer work, sorting clothes at the Young Israel. She makes the trip with her young children.

“When can we go home?” they ask her.

We don’t know, she answers.

In the cold and dark of her house, Weiss clears the ruined suitcases and toys and mattresses from her basement, and tries to remove the stench. The family — her husband was at work in Manhattan this week — probably lost a washing machine, dryer and refrigerator in the basement, too, she says. Soon she’ll apply for funds from FEMA, but doesn’t know when a serious cleanup can start.

“I want them to have a little bit of normalcy,” Weiss says of her children. “We’re trying to keep an upbeat attitude.”

Her words, Weiss says, speak for many of her neighbors and millions of New Yorkers, who were flooded out of their homes when Sandy struck.

In Bayswater, a small, working-class neighborhood of Far Rockaway that sits on a narrow peninsula between Jamaica Bay and Motts Basin, the homes were particularly vulnerable, surges approaching from two directions and wreaking havoc on low-lying streets.

The hurricane wreckage was still visible there this week — the non-functioning traffic lights and shuttered rows of stores, the piles of severed tree branches and discarded personal possessions lining every curb, the buzz of generators everywhere.

Weiss says she and her husband have spent a lot of time in recent days playing board games with their children.

“So far, we’re OK,” she says “We’re healthy. We’re safe. I have a lot of friends in similar situations,” Weiss says. “There are people worse off than we are.”

Most residents, like the Weisses, evacuated Bayswater as the storm came near.

But Sandra Levine, a member of the Young Israel who lives two doors down the street from the synagogue, stayed with her husband in their house. Both have health issues, she says; moving would have been too difficult.

Their house also lost power and heat — but members of the community, under the auspices of the JCCRP, hooked up a generator, and other people came by every day to bring food and check up on their health.

“We were never forgotten,” Levine said.

Rebuilding Process

This week, as the trauma of Sandy started to abate and New Yorkers braced for another late-autumn storm, New York Jewry counted its losses and began the rebuilding process, crossing geographic and denominational boundaries. Synagogues of all branches of Judaism offered spiritual — and physical — support to each other.

Nature’s worst brought out the best in human nature.

From Minnesota came staffers of Nechama, a Jewish disaster-response agency, who are helping assist cleanup crews and utility crews here.

From Baltimore came truckloads of emergency paraphernalia, including large generators, sent by the city’s Chesed Fund and other Baltimore Jewish organizations.

From all corners of the New York area families came on Friday to the East 59th Street headquarters of UJA-Federation, challahs in hand. The 800 loaves, some of them homemade, were distributed for Shabbat by Met Council.

All the synagogues in Long Beach joined for candlelight meals and prayers over the weekend. And one shul, the Young Israel of Long Beach, is serving as a soup kitchen.

The synagogue and rabbinical arms of the Conservative movement established a joint relief effort to raise funds for hurricane victims, said Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, president of the Rabbinical Assembly and spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center. Individual members of the RA and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism have contacted peers in the New York area to offer assistance. Synagogues, “out of a sense of urgency,” have launched their own food and clothing drives. “It has been our central preoccupation since the storm hit,” said Rabbi Skolnik.

The Union for Reform Judaism helped its member congregations in affected areas relocate bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies to synagogues that had power, and URJ provided insurance specialists to help with filing insurance claims; many congregations organized food and clothing drives and recruited volunteers for relief efforts.

The Touro Law Center this week opened a center to provide referrals, assistance and legal advice for residents and small businesses affected by the hurricane. The Hurricane Emergency Assistance and Referral Team will be staffed by volunteer lawyers and law students.

In Brooklyn, Masbia, whose network of kosher soup kitchens supplied more than four times its usual 500 kosher meals a day, brought food to three public shelters in Brooklyn and Queens. And the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement dispatched more than 100 volunteers to elderly and homebound individuals in the affected areas to bring food, other supplies and moral support.

Rabbi Charles Klein, past president of the New York Board of Rabbis and spiritual leader of the Merrick Jewish Center, planned to call a meeting this week of South Shore Jewish clergy to discuss sharing of facilities, said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the group.

“Dozens and dozens” of congregations, especially in the areas at waterside, suffered damage that will leave then unfit for use in the near future, Rabbi Potasnik said.

Tamid NYC, a new congregation serving Tribeca and Battery Park City, brought food to the homebound on the Lower East Side, working with Educational Alliance.

For many members of the Jewish community, neighborhood JCCs, which did not sustain severe damage last week, were the first place to turn to.

Met Council, in an e-mail notice, announced volunteer opportunities, mostly in sorting and distributing donated items. The Council, through its network of local Jewish councils and other agencies, provided “tens of thousands of pounds” of non-perishable food, and served at least 15,000 meals to people in southern Brooklyn, Far Rockaway and the Lower East Side, said Rapfogel.

Uri L’Tzedek, the Orthodox social justice organization, took a group of 45 volunteers — brought together by an announcement on social media — to the Lower East Side, where, in cooperation with students from Yeshivat Hadar and Yeshiva University, they distributed water bottles, batteries, dried fruit and candles.

On the Lower East Side, Yael Keller, the organization’s program associate, told JTA, “there was not anyone from the government, Red Cross etc. When we first arrived on the corner with five huge packages of bottled water, we were suddenly surrounded by residents who desperately needed water.”

In Tribeca, the Jewish Community Project, which offers a variety of programs, reopened on Sunday with “pizza and prayer,” said Susan Silverstein, president, who noted, “our community came together.”

“Most” of the organization’s members, who live in Tribeca and such nearby areas as Battery Park City and Chelsea, are back in their homes. JCP is helping a few member families to find temporary quarters.

Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn, delivered food to homebound seniors of the Kings Bay Y adult day program, assisted by Y teen volunteers, said Leonard Petlakh, the Y’s executive director.

He and two Y staff members made a food delivery on Thursday to homebound seniors at a housing project on West 33rd Street in the Coney Island neighborhood. “The place had no power, no elevator, no phone service, no sewers,” he said. “We made our way to the 19th floor and knocked on a woman’s door. When she saw us, she started to cry — we were the first people she’d seen since Monday. She told us that she was desperate to talk to her daughter in Detroit to tell her she was OK.”

One of the Y representatives handed the woman his cell phone. “The daughter was incredibly relieved,” Petlakh said. “This was the first time she had heard from her mom since before the storm arrived.”

At New York University, whose Washington Square campus was without power, heat or water, “our job was to assist and care for the Jewish students on in residence and to keep Jewish life going,” said Rabbi Daniel Smokler, director of education and engagement at the school’s Bronfman Center or Jewish Student Life. Students organized a “Bronfman Center in Exile” on the Upper West Side, led by a committee of 20 students who found housing with alumni and parents.

NYU student volunteers rented bicycles to go to the Lower East Side, walking door-to-door in apartment buildings to check on the condition of elderly residents, Rabbi Smokler said.

Back at the Young Israel of Wavecrest and Bayswater, which lost power for several days but was operating — and hosting its food and clothing distribution program — this week with a large generator, Tova Weiss said she and her husband will recite Gomel, the traditional prayer of thanksgiving, when “this all is over.”

At the door of the synagogue stood bags of dirty laundry that the congregation had arranged to be cleaned by a professional laundry, and returned within a few days.

Outside it looked like a military staging area — police lights flashing, a long Command Center trailer from Kiryas Joel taking up much of the space in the street, uniformed Hatzalah volunteers exchanging war stories. Inside, young children raced around while residents sat at the tables.

Several hundred people come in during the two-hour serving time for each meal.

The food, provided for free, was donated by the Met Council’s storage supplies, Brach’s Supermarket and the Chasdei Lev charitable organization.

A volunteer carried an armful of aluminum pans and approached a table.

“OK,” she said, “who wants lunch?”

Michael Orbach contributed reporting from Long Beach and the Five Towns in Long Island.