‘You Don’t Walk Away. You Just Help.’


Growing up in Israel, in foster homes and an orphanage, Moti Kahana learned that Jewish philanthropists from the United States were generous contributors to the needs of fellow indigent Israelis. He told himself that one day he’d like to be on the giving end.

That day came last week.

A “serial entrepreneur” who lives in Randolph, N.J., Kahana arranged transportation of gas and other supplies, including generators, to several hospitals and medical clinics in the New York area that were lacking those necessities in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. He also did similar work, as a volunteer, for the residents of Sea Gate, in southern Brooklyn, and for a synagogue in Far Rockaway, Queens, which has served the last few weeks as an emergency command center.

“You don’t give up,” when someone needs helps, says Kahana, who has done his work around the clock, spending thousands of dollars for gas out of his own pocket, taking time off only for Shabbat, in his capacity as director of North American operations for Israeli Flying Aid, a non-governmental agency that does humanitarian work around the world on a nonsectarian basis. “You don’t stop. You don’t walk away. You just help.”

IFA, several news agencies reported this week, was the first representative of a foreign country to come to the aid of New Yorkers who lost many of their possessions, and in several cases, their homes, in the hurricane.

Kahana was hardly the only Jewish volunteer.

This week, nearly two weeks after Sandy struck, Jewish New Yorkers joined their neighbors in literally picking up the pieces and moving forward with the rebuilding-and-renovating process.

In some areas, where the damage was minimal, there is little to do beyond clearing away fallen trees and branches. In other areas, like Staten Island, Far Rockaway and Sea Gate, families are still homeless and parents have lost their businesses.

For observant Jews, the storm presents a unique, ongoing problem — the lack of an eruv.

The rabbi of one Orthodox congregation in Forest Hills, Queens, announced last Friday night that the eruv — a series of strings, mostly on utility polls, that surrounds the neighborhood, allowing people to carry items outside of their home on Shabbat — was down, and probably will be for quite a while.

Repair crews with cherry-picker trucks, whcih can fix an eruv, are needed throughout the region for more crucial repair jobs, the rabbi said. While there is no central coordinating office for the dozens of eruvim in the New York area, anecdotal evidence indicates that most are in a similar state.

The Manischewitz Company contributed a truckload of kosher food — canned supplies, soups and gefilte fish estimated at $50,000 — to the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.

Met Council, which has helped coordinate the post-hurricane effort in the Jewish community and was asked by the city to take charge of three “recovery centers” that provide citizens moral support and information about government benefits, has started an “anecdotal” assessment of the extent of the damage, said William Rapfogel, Met Council executive director. It is still too early, and the organization’s staff is too stretched, to conduct an extensive, official survey in the affected neighborhoods, he said.

Hillel’s Global Jewish Experience is using social media to promote conversations among students about the ways that a community comes together during times of crisis. Abigail Dauber Sterne, the Hillel vice president coordinating this project, is using the Voices & Visions posters distributed recently by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation as a centerpiece for the discussions.

The Jewish community response to Sandy was region-wide:

♦ In Far Rockaway, the Achiezer social service agency put out a call for donations of such items as strollers, car seats, furniture and appliances, much of which was ruined in people’s flooded homes.

♦ In Westchester, the Hebrew Institute of White Plains offered activities for children so their parents could go to work while schools were closed, and community volunteers visited frail older adults.

♦ At the Yeshivah of Flatbush, where 57 families were displaced by the storm, students Natalie Sidaoui and Celia Tawil conducted a clothing drive, other students and faculty members helped clean a teacher’s deluged home and 100 sophomores and juniors distributed meals and blankets at a Brighton Beach community center.

♦ In Long Island, Rabbi Shneur and Connie Wolowik of the Chabad Center of the Five Towns distributed supplies, including “space-age” thermal blankets, to families who had lost electricity. The Wolowiks were among hundreds of volunteers from the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement who offered their assistance on a nonsectarian basis.

♦ Across the New York area, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly started a post-Sandy mentoring program that connects rabbis who have experience in hurricane relief with colleagues in areas most affected by this month’s storm. The RA also arranged a conference call with a child psychologist, for dealing with children in the aftermath of a catastrophe, and offered a three-part crash course on “Disaster Chaplaincy.”

Rabbi David Bauman, spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Long Beach, which suffered severe structural damage, says his congregation has received support from several area congregations, including Temple Israel of the City of New York, which is helping with cleanup and organizing clothing collections.

Offers to help the Jewish community came from institutions of other faiths too.

Rabbi Janise Poticha, spiritual leader of Temple Sinai in Massapequa, L.I., said her synagogue’s building, a half-block from a canal along the South Bay, received an offer to hold its worship services in the Presbyterian Community Church in North Massapequa, after flooding ruined the synagogue’s rugs and furniture, and put its heating system out of commission. The synagogue, which held its Shabbat services in the church the last two weeks and suspended its religious school classes on Sundays, will resume in its own space this weekend, Rabbi Poticha said.

“To me, it’s exceedingly important that the opportunity for prayer” in familiar surroundings “is always available,” she said. Shabbat services this week, and classes on Sunday will take place in the still-unheated sanctuary, on the “cold, concrete floor,” the rabbi said.

In a few weeks, Rabbi Poticha said, she is planning to hold a Friday night dinner for the whole congregation — and guests from local churches who helped clean up the flood damage last Sunday — in the “warmth” of the Temple Sinai sanctuary.

For Moti Kahana, who has joined a few Israeli Flying Aid humanitarian missions overseas in recent years, the work this week did not stop.

Working in coordination with FEMA, the Red Cross and various police departments, he arranged to loan large trailers — essentially portable gas stations with a 500-gallon capacity — that one of his businesses owns to the hospitals and clinics in this state and New Jersey that needed the gas for its ambulances and employees’ cars. He, and a small group of friends and relatives, all Israelis, drove the trailers, filled to the brim with gas, to each location.

“As Israelis, we know how to react to such disasters,” Kahana, who served in the Israeli Air Force, says — in other words, bypassing bureaucracy, not asking “if” something is possible. “Israelis know how to get things done.”

Each trailer is outfitted with a large Israeli flag, he says. “Everyone knows that it’s Jews, Israelis, who are helping.”

His three children are learning firsthand what he learned as a kid in Israel, Kahana says

This weekend, he says, he will be on the road again, helping more victims of Sandy. “We’re definitely going to do something. We don’t know what.”