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In the Dark Loss of Power Brings Communities Closer — but Shows Unpreparedness

August 20, 2003
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It was Thursday afternoon, three days before 1,800 Jewish kids were to arrive for the final week of the JCC Maccabi games, and 40 delegation leaders were ironing out the logistics at a New Jersey hotel.

That’s when the lights and the air conditioning went dead, and the room quickly became hot and sticky.

But the organizers kept planning, hardly skipping a beat.

“I gotta tell you,” said Lenny Silberman, North American continental director of the JCC Maccabi Games, “doing this for the games for 20 years and working with those communities, the potential for a big balagan” — brouhaha — “was definitely there.”

But “it was amazing,” he said Monday from his cell phone at the site of the games, the Jewish Community Center on the Palisades.

Thanks to the organizers’ calm, the blackout didn’t create even “an ounce” of anxiety — and all the athletes, hosted by local families, arrived in time for Sunday’s opening ceremonies.

“We knew there was no power, but we also knew that we had 1,800 kids that are depending on us on Sunday, so we had to do what we had to do,” Silberman said.

A mix of determination and calm was found in Jewish communities across the Northeast that were impacted Aug. 14 by the massive blackout, the largest in the nation’s history.

Jewish communities also mirrored the mood of the population at large, which was relieved to learn that the outage was the result of a system overload, not terrorism.

Yet the incident highlighted Jewish organizations’ lack of preparedness for an emergency situation.

David Gad-Harf, executive director of Detroit’s Jewish Community Council, praised the spirit of communal cooperation — people took to the streets for block parties, cooking steaks that had defrosted in their freezers — but called the power failure a “wake-up call not only for the Jewish community, but for America as a whole.”

Without an “old-fashioned” non-electric phone on hand, Gad-Harf said, the agency was unable to contact local federation leaders or other Jewish agencies.

“We realized that we were really not prepared for a crisis of this kind,” he said.

Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella organization for local federation community-relations councils, agreed.

“We learned how completely dependent on electricity we are,” she said, noting that even the organization’s national contingency plan is dispatched through computers.

The alternative plan is to use telephones — which, if they were typical office phones, depend on electricity and didn’t work in the blackout — followed by cell phones, whose networks quickly were overloaded.

“None of those three plans worked for us,” she said.

A new backup system has been in the works, Rosenthal said, explaining that a computer motherboard located in the Midwest could release information remotely.

But even that wouldn’t have helped last week, as parts of the Midwest went as black as Manhattan.

As a result, every Jewish agency had to fend for itself in the blackout — without the national mobilizations or alerts that are customary in emergencies.

There was “not the time or the communications capacity to mobilize,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York. “Our first responsibility was to deal with the safety and security of our people.

“Every agency with whom I’ve spoken was better prepared and had a better system in place than we did on 9/11, and yet there are times when you still need to call audibles,” he said, using a term for football plays that are improvised in response to unexpected circumstances.

While commending the efforts of his federation’s social service agencies, Ruskay noted that Jewish agencies realized they must establish more effective backup modes of communication.

Many rose to the occasion with resourcefulness.

Some 150 young people were staying in the hostel at Manhattan’s 92nd St. Y when the lights went out.

Borrowing yoga mats from the gym, the staff turned the senior lounge into a makeshift boarding room. They served meals paid for with IOU’s from local grocery stores and brought games and cards from their children’s and seniors’ centers and a transistor radio for news and music.

Despite the enormity of the power failure, Jewish communities across the country took it in stride and were only minimally hindered.

The Jewish contingent of an interfaith mission from Akron, Ohio, to Washington was about to fly home when they heard about the blackout.

“I checked the Internet from my cell phone, and as soon as I found out what the situation was, I just knew that we were not going to be able to fly into Cleveland,” said Michael Wise, chief executive officer of the Jewish Community Board of Akron, which sponsored the trip.

His instincts proved right: As one of six major airports that bore the brunt of the power outage, Cleveland’s airport was without power for the next 15 hours.

Using two cell phones, by 7 p.m. Wise had managed to book the group a flight to Pittsburgh and arrange for a bus from Akron’s Shaw Jewish Community Center to pick up the tired travelers at the Pittsburgh airport.

Before hitting the road, though, the bus driver had to locate a gas station in blacked-out Akron that had electrical power and enough diesel fuel for the two-hour drive.

The group — which included state representatives, judges, media professionals, clergy and school and business leaders — arrived in Akron at 1 a.m., only five hours later than planned.

“Everyone from our group was incredibly cooperative and understanding,” Wise said. “They all said this was a trip they will definitely never forget.”

Most Jewish organizations escaped Thursday’s mishap without much difficulty.

Most of the clients had already left FEGS, a beneficiary of the UJA-Federation of New York that provides social services to more than 9,000 people a day.

FEGS runs many facilities, such as residence homes for the developmentally disabled, but COO Gail Magaliff said she had not heard reports of any trouble.

At Long Island Jewish Medical Center, “all of the vital patient services were unaffected” thanks to backup power reserves, hospital spokeswoman Leslie Holleran said.

Others found a type of reprieve in the electric jolt.

“In a way it was magic,” said Naomi Rose, executive director of the Miles Nadal JCC in Toronto, which closed early on Thursday.

“We got to see the stars,” which usually are obliterated by the city lights, she said.

“People sort of felt reasonably positive about it,” viewing it as a “pause in their hurried lives,” she said.

At the Baycrest Terrace, a Jewish senior citizens home, volunteers climbed a dozen flights of stairs to deliver prearranged meals and check on elderly residents.

In Detroit, volunteers also climbed stairs to deliver water to residents of senior citizen apartments maintained by the community, while a local kosher food bank donated canned tuna fish and salmon, applesauce, peanut butter and bread.

Some employees drove as much as 75 miles, to Lansing, to pick up gallon jugs of water.

In Oak Park, Mich., customers flocked to Borenstein’s Books and Music not to pore over the volumes of Talmudic scholarship but to buy yahrzeit candles, which are guaranteed to burn all night.

In Farmington Hills, Mich., a corpse that was to buried on Friday morning had to undergo a taharah, or ritual cleansing, by candlelight.

“Watching the taharah brought me back to ancient times when our ancestors performed this same ritual by the light of candles,” said Michael Dorfman of the Dorfman Funeral Chapel. “And isn’t this one of the reasons we adhere to our traditions — to make us feel closer to our ancestors?

The wedding of Eli and Debbie Savage, a young Orthodox couple in Toronto, was due to begin Thursday evening soon after the lights went out. It went ahead as scheduled.

Some 350 wedding guests ate a festive meal warmed on gas stoves, and danced to music played on a grand piano that had been wheeled into the banquet hall.

A hotel generator supplied a bit of backup lighting and air conditioning, as well as temporary power for a video camera.

Some guests arrived as much as two hours late because of gridlocked traffic in the streets. But most stayed late, realizing it made more sense to enjoy the celebration rather than struggle to get home.

“When they were there, they really couldn’t go anywhere,” Savage said. “So people were thinking that they might as well just stay and enjoy. I’ve never seen so much spirit and electricity in the room.”

After a night of dancing, the newlyweds were obliged to climb ten flights of stairs to their honeymoon suite with candles in hand.

A candlelit photo of the Savages appeared on the front page of The Globe and Mail’s Saturday edition under the headlines “With Glowing Hearts” and “How the wedding sparks flew against a backdrop of darkness.”

Guests commented that it had been one of the best weddings they had ever attended.

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