Families, Synagogues Still Reeling 7 Months After Hurricane Sandy


Herchel Reisz, 45, and the father of five, has been living largely in government-funded hotels since the floodwaters of Superstorm Sandy raced through his ground-floor apartment Oct. 29.

But city funds for his hotel bill run out May 31.

Reisz, who works as the kosher supervisor at a Woodmere, L.I., nursing home, said he had been paying $1,500 monthly rent for a three-bedroom apartment before Sandy struck and that he would like to find a comparable apartment near Woodmere. But his months-long apartment search has been fruitless, he said.

“I’m in a dilemma,” Reisz confided. “The city would like me to take an apartment near Coney Island, but there are no Jews there, how would my kids get to their yeshiva in Far Rockaway almost 20 miles away, and my wife doesn’t want to move there. No matter what I tell the city, I’ll be out of the hotel — and they said they will send us to a family shelter if we don’t take the apartment.”

Maryam S., 65, a teacher from Rockaway Park, Queens, has not lived in her three-bedroom ranch house since floodwaters drove her out the night of the storm. She has lived with friends while she attempts to get contractors to repair her home.

She said she fired the first contractor who “did more harm than good” and whom she is considering suing, and paid $6,000 for a new oil burner that broke two days later. In all, she figured it will cost her $82,000 to get back into her house at the end of the summer, and she has received only $47,400 from insurance, government aid and donations.

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Nearly seven months after Sandy, many families and congregations are still struggling to get their lives back.

Stephanie Aizer, a social worker at M’Yad L’Yad, a Long Island organization that helps families in need, said several of her 187 recipient families lost their homes on the South Shore.

“One relocated to an apartment in Lynbrook earlier this year after living on cots in a shelter for several months,” she said. “They are our success story. Two other families are still living in motels, and a half-dozen other families are living with relatives or friends because they are still unable to get back into their damaged homes.”

Rabbi Elimelech Laufer, 80, of Belle Harbor, Queens, said he and his wife were able to continue living in their waterfront home because for five hours they bailed out water from their basement as it rushed in — keeping it from their first floor.

But the storm destroyed the three-and-a-half-foot beach retaining wall and the home next to Laufer’s that was closest to the beach. His home now sits just a few feet from the beach, and Laufer said he is concerned about what might happen in the next storm. Nevertheless, he had his basement rebuilt, walled up the window through which the ocean poured in, and installed all-new appliances.

But Laufer, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, said he is unable to forget the sound of the windswept debris slamming against his house during the storm.

“Every time something hit, we ran through the house to see what broke,” he said. “Nothing did, and I said to my wife, ‘Don’t worry, at least they’re not shooting at us.’”

Elisheva Trachtenberg, the Hurricane Sandy project coordinator at the Jewish Community Council of the Far Rockaway Peninsula, said she is still getting calls from people who had never reached out before for assistance.

“People are calling saying their roof has begun to leak, and that it was damaged by Sandy,” she said. “Others are calling to say they spent money on mold remediation and demolition and have no money for repairs — when a lot of that work could have been done for free.”

Naamah Adelman, a caseworker at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, is working with Reisz and other families left devastated by the storm.

She pointed out that one of the JCC’s offices has been given to a counselor from Project Hope at Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, who offers emotional support to individuals and families at no charge.

Such support is often crucial following such a traumatic event, according to Adina Frydman, executive director of SYNERGY: UJA-Federation of New York and Synagogues Together Experience.

“As we saw from other natural disasters around the country, the issue that continues even after the physical damage [has been addressed] is the impact on one’s mental health — trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Frydman said her office is preparing to work with mental health agencies to provide training for responders within synagogues and JCCs, to help them identify mental health needs and trauma symptoms.

“This will be a major area of focus going forward,” she said. “One of the things we learned from the Jewish federation in New Orleans after Katrina and from the Israel Trauma Coalition is that we should be paying attention to the mental health needs of the community not only six months out but two years out.”

Many synagogues in the flood zone are also still reeling from the battering they took.

At Congregation Ohab Zedek of Belle Harbor, an Orthodox synagogue of about 200 families in Queens, walls have been erected in the lobby to prevent access to steps that lead to a basement that once housed classrooms and a chapel. The flood destroyed everything in the basement and forced the gutting of the entire floor; nothing has yet been rebuilt.

But the restoration of electricity to the ballroom shortly before Passover allowed the congregation to move worship services from a rented trailer to the ballroom. Electricity was restored to the main 600-seat sanctuary earlier this month.

A trailer still sits next to Temple Beth El of Rockaway Park to house the synagogue office and a daily minyan chapel. Sandy’s water surge filled the synagogue basement, destroying the ballroom, the minyan chapel, a kitchen, classrooms, the boiler and meeting rooms.

Although the main sanctuary on the second floor of this 200-family Conservative congregation in Queens was untouched by the storm, it could not be used until last month when all of the utilities were finally restored.

The ballroom was rebuilt just two weeks ago, but behind it workmen this week were still rebuilding synagogue offices.

A short distance away, West End Temple in Neponsit sits largely unused as cleanup efforts continue there. A trailer in the parking lot has been used since February, housing both worship services and synagogue offices.

Rebuilding efforts in the Reform synagogue concentrated first on reopening its popular nursery school, which was relocated to the Howard Beach Judea Center after the storm. It returned to the synagogue the day after Passover, using a temporary heating system.

“We can’t use the sanctuary because there is no floor, there is no floor in the gym, and no offices in the building are available yet,” the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Marjorie Slome, said as she looked at pews sitting in the hallway where volunteers had sanded and stained them.

Susan Greenbaum, project manager for the rebuilding effort, said there are leaks from the roof and windows that still must be addressed in the building. She said the new electric panel was placed as high as possible on the wall in the event of a future flood, and that they hope to replace the gym floor with one that is resistant to water.

But the Sylane Room, a multipurpose room, was rebuilt just days ago and services will be moved there May 31.

A sign on the bulletin board in front of the synagogue proudly proclaims to all that West End Temple is “Coming Back.”