Lessons In Perseverance


Preschool: Kings Bay Y

Helping Children Process What Happened

One week after the Kings Bay Y put up a mezuzah on its new facility, located on Emmons Avenue in Sheepshead Bay, the brand-new hallways were filled with 12 feet of water.

Out of the 3,000 people who visit on the Kings Bay Y regularly, “hundreds” suffered major losses according to associate executive director, Kenneth Soloway.

Despite the damage Hurricane Sandy wreaked on the Y’s community, its 80-student preschool was back up and running within days. The preschool, located in the Y’s Nostrand Avenue facility, incurred only mild damage and actually expanded child-care services in the days after the hurricane, running a free mini-camp. Preschool Director Susan Kaminsky lost her home, taking up residence in a hotel in Queens until she could find a new permanent residence, yet returned to her position at the preschool just days after the storm. Her efforts were “no less than heroic,” said Soloway.

Since the storm, the preschool has placed a special emphasis on providing children with activities to help them process what happened. “Our kids went through a lot with this hurricane, and we want to make sure they have the chance to express themselves,” said Daniel Zeltser, program director at the Kings Bay Y. Added programming includes art, yoga and dance classes. “It’s interesting to see how the artwork of the children has changed since the storm,” said Zeltser. “Children have taken to painting pictures of storms and rainy days, instead of the regular sunny day with smiling sun that we think of as the preschool norm.”

The preschool has also added to the social work staff that interacts with the children. “We’re not dealing with blankets and food anymore — now our task is to provide the emotional support for the kids and their families,” said Zeltser. The preschool has also increased dialogue between the teachers and parents. “After drop-off in the morning or when the parents come to pick up their kids in the evening, there is a line of parents waiting to have a conversation with the teachers. Now that initial shock has passed and children are accepting their new reality, in several cases the loss of homes, kids are asking ‘why?’ CAP? and ‘how?’ CAP? Parents and teachers working together is the only way to give the answers kids need.”

Financial support for the teachers, many of whom suffered tremendous losses as well, was provided in large part by a UJA-Federation of New York grant of direct cash assistance. The Kings Bay Y also helped staff members file FEMA applications.

“One little boy, age 3, who lived in Manhattan Beach, lost his home in the hurricane,” Zeltser said. “The week before, we had been planning to have a ‘Mommy and Me’ style program (with a Jewish twist) in his house. The little boy just simply couldn’t grasp why the program had been cancelled. When so much changes quickly, kids hold on to the small piece they can handle. It’s our job as educators to slowly help them grasp the whole picture.”

— Hannah Dreyfus

Day School: Hebrew Academy of Long Beach (HALB)

Temporary Classrooms, ‘Heroic’ Faculty and Students

The Hebrew Academy of Long Beach (HALB), with 1,700 students in nursery through 12th grade, incurred significant damages during Sandy. Its most damaged facilities, the elementary school and the boys’ high school (DRS Yeshiva High School), were returned to full use on Dec. 3 (DRS) and Dec. 12 (elementary school).

During the interim, classes were held in a variety of temporary locations. The Yeshiva of South Shore and Congregation Beth Shalom lent classroom space to the high school boys. The elementary school students attended classes in local synagogues (Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst and Congregation Kneseth Israel of Far Rockaway) as well as in vacant stores, lent out by the owners. Warren Levi, owner of a temporarily vacant karate studio, provided space for elementary classes.

Despite the upheaval, students missed only five days of classes.

Asked how the teachers and students are coping now, Richard Hagler, HALB’s executive director, responded, “Fantastic.”

“We’ve been through a lot, both students and staff, but we’re back in business. While our buildings were being restored, the efforts among staff and students to persevere with learning were heroic.” Teachers returned to their makeshift classrooms days after the storm, “at great personal sacrifice,” with most of their homes still without water or power.

Now back in their regular classrooms, teachers have continued with the curriculum “just as it was before.”

To provide students with additional emotional support “we have a social work board on staff who have and continue to make themselves available to student needs,” Hagler said.

The “millions” required to rebuild and repair the damaged campus will be funded privately. While the school drew upon its reserve funds, “there’s no way the expenses could have been paid for all at once,” said Hagler. “We made the repairs that had to be made, and we’ll pay off the expenses over time.”

In terms of further assistance needed right now, Hagler said, “it is not the school anymore but some of the families that still need personal assistance.” Hagler described a mother from Belle Harbor, Queens, who lost her home and was unsure how to send her child to school. Not knowing what to do, she called the principal of the elementary school, Rabbi Dovid Plotkin who was able to find the family long-term living accommodations.

“Because she reached out, we were able to reach in,” Hagler said.

— Hannah Dreyfus

Congregational School: Temple Emanu-El of Long Beach

Hoping The Roof Won’t Fall In

Lately, whenever it rains or snows, Temple Emanu-El of Long Beach’s educational director, Vicki Cabrera gets nervous.

“If we have a really bad winter and spring, I’ll lose the school probably,” she told The Jewish Week, adding that the roof above her office and classrooms is “literally being held together with glue.”

A 67-year-old Reform temple with 200 families, Emanu-El suffered extensive flooding from nearby canals during Hurricane Sandy, damaging the sanctuary, ballroom and early childhood program. At first, Cabrera, who is president of Long Island Temple Educators, the regional branch of the Reform movement’s National Association of Temple Educators, thought the 55-student religious school, housed on the temple’s second floor, had been spared. Then, less than two weeks after Sandy, the Nor’easter hit.

“Our roof has always had problems with leaks, but this storm did it in,” Cabrera said. “The roof gave in and flooded the entire floor. We lost books and supplies, and my office was completely decimated. We were shut down for four and a half weeks.”

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that Emanu-El, like many non-Orthodox congregations on Long Island’s South Shore, had been “hanging on by a thread” even before Sandy hit, its membership declining as a result of shifting demographics, the weak economy and competition from lower-cost alternatives like Chabad.

And the damage to Emanu-El’s building is only part of the problem; many of the temple’s members and staff suffered major damages to their personal property and have been displaced. Four families have withdrawn their children from the religious school because they have permanently left Long Beach, and others are considering abandoning their homes altogether rather than repairing them.

“We’re doing a lot of counseling,” Cabrera said. “A lot of families are not doing great and are suffering post-traumatic stress.”

Chanukah provided some badly needed light, with the religious school classrooms cleaned and de-molded just before the start of the holiday.

“We did everything in the school that we normally do, including a Chanukah party with latkes; music, dancing and song, arts and crafts,” Cabrera said.

Another source of light has been the outpouring of support from Cabrera’s colleagues at Reform temples in New York and around the country.

The religious school at Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation is adopting Temple Emanu-El for the rest of the year and is helping replace damaged equipment, including a TV and DVD player. Meanwhile, members of a Philadelphia congregation donated prayer books, delivering them by car.

Cabrera is hoping to rustle up still more donations. “Any roofers that want to donate their services would be most appreciated,” she said.

— Julie Wiener

Hillel: Brooklyn College

Haven From The Storm, Hotbed Of Voluntarism

The Tanger Hillel at Brooklyn College was spared physical damage during Hurricane Sandy, says its executive director, Nadya Drukker — but the homes of many of the 2,000 Jewish students who take part in that Hillel’s activities each year were not so fortunate.

Property in flooded areas of the borough near the water’s edge was damaged; students’ families lost power, heat and many possessions.

So the Hillel, located in Flatbush, turned into a crisis center in the days and weeks after the storm, and continues to raise funds to help feed families who lost everything.

“Hillel was open to students and community members during the storm for refuge,” for counseling and for warmth, Drukker says.

She opened the three-story center on the edge of campus in the Flatbush neighborhood on the edge of campus to students and their families, serving free kosher food in the cafeteria, letting people charge their cellphones and giving students a warm place to study. Working with local community centers and Jewish poverty organizations, she mobilized Hillel students to aid people who had taken the brunt of Sandy.

“Our students, even as they themselves were without power, have been busy reaching out to the seniors who live in the affected area,” Drukker wrote in a post-storm memo.

Dozens of students, first in their own cars, then in carpools when gasoline became scarce, fanned out through Brooklyn, bringing food and supplies — and sometimes, heaters — and moral support to isolated elderly people, many of them in dark apartments in high-rise buildings whose elevators were out of service. They checked on seniors on the Hillel’s Passover package-delivery list; students from Russian-speaking households volunteered as translators for National Guard members who had problems communicating with nervous emigrés.

During the college’s upcoming winter session, which begins Jan. 6, many Hillel members have signed up to participate in a variety of activities like cleaning up flooded apartments and delivering food packages to families still in need.

— Steve Lipman

The preceding reports are snapshots of just a few of the many New York-area Jewish educational institutions that are coping with the aftermath of Sandy. They are not meant to be comprehensive.