|The Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies’ office in Hackensack was destroyed when the Hackensack River overflowed its banks. Courtesy bchsjs|
If Hurricane Sandy had a devastating effect on communities throughout New Jersey, the storm also brought out the best in area residents, local religious leaders say. Citing ongoing acts of generosity, rabbis and communal leaders are praising their members for reaching out to those in need.
“It’s been an interesting few days,” said Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky, religious leader of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck.
“I feel awful for those in really bad shape – those really hurting. I wish it hadn’t happened. But for many people, the first thing they said was, ‘How can I help?’ That’s a wonderful thing. I was heartened to read in The New York Times that relief agencies are overwhelmed with assistance.”
His synagogue regained its power on Saturday night.
“It was hard to know how to help,” he said. With no power and limited phone service, “that was the most difficult part,” not being able to get in touch with members of the congregation.
Many of his members had lost power, as had much of Teaneck. Working together with administrative director Matt Halpern, Pitkowsky used the shul as a home base, “to figure out how we could help.”
Contacting as many congregants as they could, “We set up a spreadsheet with people who could help and people who needed help.” Still, he said, one of his major concerns was that they might miss people who really were in need.
“To me, the question of phones has been a very interesting microcosm of societal issues,” Pitkowsky said. “If cell phones were down and we couldn’t communicate, what would it be like to be really isolated? We need to make sure that people always feel connected. In planning for the next storm, we need to figure out how to set up a visitation tree for when phones are out, to have some sort of neighborhood system where people check on others.
“We rely so much on cell phones,” he said. “We need to make sure everyone is going to be okay. Not being able to know was very frustrating.”
Like many other shuls, Beth Sholom sent congregants an email volunteering the synagogue as a place where they could warm up, charge their electrical devices, have a cup of coffee, or sit and work. The shul also arranged for a caterer to deliver meals to the synagogue for congregants to buy.
“Now that we’re back on our feet, we’re seeing what we can do for the [wider] community,” said the rabbi, adding that he has called the United Synagogue of Hoboken to see how his congregants can help with relief efforts there.
“I’m hoping to bring a group down there on Sunday to help,” said Pitkowsky. “I’ll see what we can collect and bring down with us.”
He noted, however, that “the gas situation is making things more difficult. No matter how well-meaning the volunteers, they may be reluctant to travel if it means they won’t be able to get to work the next day.”
Pitkowsky said the congregation held Shabbat services at Teaneck’s Temple Emeth.
“They offered us the sanctuary Shabbat morning,” he said. “Their big service is Friday night.”
As it happened, rather than holding their own chapel service on Saturday, Temple Emeth members chose to join the Beth Sholom service.
In his sermon, the rabbi pointed out that in the Akedah story, when Abraham is poised to slaughter Isaac, the angel who calls out to him says the patriarch’s name twice. Perhaps, Pitkowsky said, this is a sign that the Abraham who began the process of the Akedah is a different person at the end.
His hope, he said, is that the situation will cause a similar effect among those people who were touched by the hurricane and in a position to help others.
“I said I hoped this event would really cause people to understand what their priorities should be, using it as a way to reorganize yourself, your life, and your priorities.”
Congregation Arzei Darom did not suffer any structural or flood damage, Rabbi Aharon Ciment said. But a tree in front of the building fell down with wires wrapped around it. He noted that at some point most of his members had lost power.
“On Thursday and Friday we made calls to ensure that people without power would be hosted by people who had it,” he said. “For both eating and sleeping, their needs were addressed. They had places to go and hang out.”
On Shabbat, Ciment spoke about the need for man to emulate the attributes of God, including kindness.
“Just as Abraham showed kindness by inviting strangers into his home, so should we open up our homes and our wallets” to those devastated by the storm. “We have to comfort others,” he said. “That’s what it means to be a God-fearing Jew.”
About 40 people from Congregation Netivot Shalom celebrated Shabbat at Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot’s house, and shared a lunch the rabbi and his wife had prepared for them. They had welcomed Shabbat the evening before at a congregant’s house. That’s because the shul had no power.
It suffered no damage, however, and as far as Helfgot knows no Netivot Shalom member’s house was damaged seriously. The shul served as a clearinghouse for members with power to help those without.
Helfgot said that he is encouraging members to be involved in aid initiatives in such places as Staten Island, the Five Towns, Brooklyn, and the Lower East Side, and he is forwarding emails from relief organizations offering volunteer opportunities or requesting funding.
The offices of the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies were demolished by the Hackensack River.
The water level in the office rose to somewhere between four and five feet, and everything in it has been destroyed.
The school meets on Sundays at the Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls’ building in Teaneck, so classes will met this week, but nothing else is normal.
“I’m just reeling,” Bess Adler, the school’s director said. “We lost everything except my laptop. The building will bring in cleaning crews. We will have to get out the sifre kodesh” – the sacred texts – “or they will be thrown out with everything else. They are destroyed, but we have to save them for burial.”
Cantor Orna Green, who teaches at the school and whose twin daughters are students there, wrote an email describing it:
“One simply cannot fathom how the water surged uphill over a field and 3 city blocks from the Hackensack River to Main Street and caused such damage to your office. The image of a 5 gallon water bottle filled with dirty river water, the water damage to the sukkah resting atop a 6 foot file cabinet, the piles upon piles of siddurim, chumashim and other Jewish texts which will have to be buried, and the discovery of the waterlogged envelope of Tzedaka money donated by the students will stay with us for the rest of our lives.”
Adler said that the task ahead of them is daunting. “Now we’re taking refuge at the federation” – that’s the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey – “and we’ll have to rebuild. I don’t know how.
“We will apply to FEMA and hope for the best.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, religious leader of Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah, said that though his synagogue did not suffer damage, a tree crashed through the old brick wall surrounding the property.
“We have a generator so we were able to continue to run,” he said. “The power went up and down, but we became the center for the community. People came in all day long.”
They came in at night as well.
On Wednesday and Thursday evenings, Noah’s Ark restaurant, which had lost power, set up in the ballroom of the synagogue.
“People were able to come in, sit down, and buy food,” said the rabbi. “We also had communal meals on Shabbat, especially for those with no power. In addition, because others shuls in town had no power, they basically came to us for Shabbat.”
Goldin said that a bar mitzvah ceremony scheduled for last Shabbat at East Hill Synagogue was held instead at Ahavath Torah.
“We worked it out so that the whole bar mitzvah program could be held here,” he said. “Both Rabbi Reichman and I spoke to the bar mitzvah boy.”
In his remarks, Goldin talked about “being thankful that our community was spared the brunt [of the storm] as compared to others. I said we had to express our empathy and solidarity for those still suffering.”
The rabbi said that despite some email trouble the synagogue was able to coordinate an outreach effort, matching people with power to those without.
“Tons of people opened their homes,” he said, adding that the congregation was also very involved in collecting materials for harder-hit communities and driving carloads of these items to the communities themselves.
“We’re continuing to do that and to collect funds as well,” he said.
Temple Sinai in Tenafly never lost its power, Rabbi Jordan Millstein said. But it did lose its Internet connection, making it difficult to reach out to congregants and assess their situation.
“We had a plan if the temple kept its power,” Millstein said. “We would tell people to come here, where they could have light and heat and charge their devices. But unlike other times, this time we lost our Internet. So the challenge was how to get the word out.”
Millstein, who lives in Demarest and whose own house lost power until Saturday afternoon, said, “When the storm initially hit, we didn’t know what was going on. We felt shut off from the world without the usual ways to connect.”
Still – with an iPhone that worked and the help of synagogue executive director Jeff Katz, who came in to help even though a tree had fallen on the roof of his own home – Millstein found a way to get out a message to the congregation.
“A congregant, Anne Marie Bennoun, called to see how I was doing and said she had a generator and still had power. So we went to her house,” he said.
Once people knew the shul was up and running, the synagogue “became like a drop-in center for temple members as well as for their friends and other people in the area who saw that we had power and walked in,” Millstein said. “We had coffee out for people and a room for them to hang out.”
Bennoun also suggested that the shul try to organize a dinner for those without power.
“She organized it herself with some other volunteers and did the cooking,” Millstein said. “We ended up having 50 people for dinner on Wednesday night.” So successful was this venture that Bennoun decided to offer dinner on Friday night as well. About 75 people showed up for it.
“It was a wonderful communal moment,” Millstein said.
In his email messages to the congregation, Millstein wrote about what the shul was doing and “what was going on out in the world.”
For example, he shared information about a synagogue on Long Island that had suffered extensive damage and made an appeal on its behalf. He also provided information about the hurricane relief fund established by the Union for Reform Judaism.
Matt Libien, chair of the synagogue’s tikkun olam committee, sent an email Saturday night telling fellow congregants about a collection being organized in Maywood to help people in communities severely affected by the hurricane, including Little Ferry, Moonachie, and Carlstadt.
“By Sunday morning, there were bags and bags of stuff – 11 van loads,” Millstein said.
Indeed, so great was the outpouring from congregants, who continued to bring items after the collection ended, that the synagogue now is looking for other places to donate the additional materials.
Meanwhile, synagogue life has gone on as normally as possible.
“We made a decision: We’re open. We’ll do what we can. Basically, everything ran and we didn’t stop operations,” said Millstein, pointing out that the synagogue marked two children’s becoming b’nai mitzvah on Shabbat.
At the service, he spoke about the outpouring of generosity and hospitality displayed by synagogue members. Referring to the Torah portion, he said that “Vayera … means ‘and God appeared.’ During dark times – times of disaster, of loss, of chaos – it may appear that God is absent. But God is not absent. Not when we open our tent flaps, open our doors and let God – and our fellow weary travelers – in.”
Because the shul was still without power on Sunday, Rabbi Neil Tow of the Glen Rock Jewish Center said he arranged with the town to hold Shabbat services at the town hall.
“We had a full house,” he said. “It felt really great to come together as a community with so many out of power and looking for a way to come together in a place that was warm and surrounded by friends.”
Volunteers were also able to arrange “a really nice oneg.”
Tow said that he has been inspired by the number of emails he has received from people with power offering to open their homes to those without.
“Lots of people volunteered, though I haven’t received a lot of requests” for help, he said, pointing out that many people already had made their own arrangements with family and friends.
The rabbi, whose own family has been living with friends, said he invited ninth- to twelfth-graders to the house where he was staying to bake challah on Thursday.
“We had some 15 to 20 people,” he said. “We delivered the challahs to as many as we could who didn’t have power. We found that we could deliver it directly to a number of people, but parts of the town were like a ghost town. It brought people together to do a mitzvah.”
The synagogue also hosted a blood drive. Because Sunday had been designated as Mitzvah Day, it was decided to go ahead with the drive, which would not require power from the synagogue. About 40 people participated.
The Jewish Center also collected such items as winter clothes and blankets for a family in Brick whose home was damaged by the storm.
“My wife has a colleague with a vacation home there,” Tow said.
“People have come together and been really active,” he added. “We’re going to keep moving and reaching out.”
“The shul is fine,” Rabbi David Fine said of the town’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center. “We did not lose power and there was no flooding.”
He noted that the synagogue was better prepared this time than it was for Hurricane Irene, when it suffered extensive damage.
“We removed everything from the basement and had two backup generators for the sump pumps,” he said.
The rabbi said that members who lost power have been able to use the shul as a center.
“There are at least 12 people here every day,” he said. “It’s a place to charge batteries, warm up, have coffee, and take a hot shower,” though people have to bring their own towels and toiletries. “It’s a place to gather – we put out food every day.”
Fine said that synagogue president Allan Alterman has been working hard to keep in touch with members through email updates. After Irene, the shul’s email server was outsourced to another location to keep it secure.
In addition, the synagogue has been matching congregants with power to those without.
“From the first day, people invited others over for dinner,” he said, adding that many also are using their guest rooms to put up fellow congregants in need. “Members came forward to volunteer and we have a list we’re sending out of people who have homes available.”
The synagogue – which has installed extra power strips for laptops and cell phones – also has offered itself as a “warming center” to the wider Ridgewood community.
“We’re working with the town on that,” Fine said, noting that other houses of worship also are involved in that effort.
The Fair Lawn Jewish Center did not lose power, Rabbi Ronald Roth said, noting that services went on as usual.
But daily life at the center has been anything but usual, with people using the synagogue to find a bit of warmth and light.
“Starting Wednesday morning we opened the building to the community as best we can,” Roth said. “We set up tables with coffee and donuts and put out power strips for people to charge their phones or log on to their computers. Some people have come in and worked all day.”
At any one time, the shul has hosted a dozen people, he said, “with easily 60 different people there on Wednesday. Some kids came in to play in the gym on Thursday.”
The rabbi said that until everyone has power, “we’ll have a place for them to come in and stay warm and drink coffee.”
He added that the shul was in the process of learning how to meet the unique needs created by this kind of situation.
“Right now we’ve set up an ad hoc committee to create better procedures so that things we hadn’t thought of will be on our preparedness list.”
The rabbi said that while the shul was able to proceed with a planned bar mitzvah on Shabbat, the bar mitzvah family itself lost power, as did the catering hall booked for the celebratory party, which has been postponed.
In his Shabbat sermon, Roth told congregants that while this was a great tragedy – and there is a great sense of loss for those who were killed or injured – we should not think of God as “manipulating the forces of nature but rather as that still small voice inside of us,” prompting us to help others.
Keeping the food flowing
Lisa Fedder, executive director of the Teaneck-based Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, said that “amazingly, our building has had power the whole time.” Still, with the Internet down, “We couldn’t communicate with people. That was the problem.” Nevertheless, JFS opened its doors on Wednesday, “giving out coffee and providing a place for people to warm up.”
Among the challenges faced by the agency was how to ensure that those who remained in their homes would still received hot meals through the agency’s Kosher Meals on Wheels program.
JFS serves about 250 elders at any one time – some 120 who are regular recipients of KMOW, and others who are served through the group’s care management program. The agency reached out to all of them to determine their need for food.
“We reached out on Wednesday to everyone to be sure they had enough for Thursday and Friday,” Fedder said. “We didn’t expect it to be this bad, but we got food to the people who needed it.”
Those without power but in need of food also received items from the JFS food pantry, which contains materials such as canned soup and tuna fish.
Fedder said that while JFS staff members were able to contact most of their clients, they could not reach them all. In those cases, they asked the local police department to do wellness visits. Fortunately, everyone was safe.
KMOW volunteers did their regular hot-meal deliveries on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. In addition, when the agency learned that 24 people in the care management program – but not in the KMOW program – needed hot meals, it made special arrangements.
“We arranged with the Jewish Home at Rockleigh to deliver the meals to us on Monday, to deliver to those people’s homes,” said Fedder, noting that an additional challenge will be to get volunteer drivers while gas is scarce.
The JFS head noted that her agency is a part of the local FEMA network. Now that her Internet is back up, she is sending out FEMA updates on a regular basis. The memos include information on things such as public shelters and open grocery stores.
“We’ll assess the situation on a daily basis,” Fedder said. “We have the capacity to help. If people want to move, there are ways to make that happen. Bergen County will drive them. We have a number through which they can request transportation.” And, she added, “Nobody should be without food.”
Leah Kaufman, who heads the Jewish Family Service of North Jersey, said that Tuesday was the only day on which the agency did not deliver meals.
“I made that decision because the roads in Fair Lawn were too dangerous for volunteers,” she said. “When we delivered on Monday, we told clients they might not get it on Tuesday. We tried to encourage them to make sure they had enough food.”
In trying to gauge the status of clients, Kaufman found that a lot of the elderly in Fair Lawn had gone to stay with their adult children. Unable to reach two clients, she asked the police to check up on them.
“People are extremely stressed out and still don’t have power,” she said, explaining that while requests for additional assistance have not yet come in, she expects they will come eventually, when people have had a chance to assess the damage.
She noted that her agency has also opened the kosher meals program to anyone in need. “If they call by 1 p.m., they’ll have it the following day,” she said.
A community resource
“We got our power back Wednesday night and by Thursday morning we were open to the entire community – members and nonmembers,” said Rhonda Roth, communications director for the YJCC of Bergen County in Washington Township. “We invited people in to really use the facility – not just to charge their batteries but to swim, work out, shower – to use whatever they needed.”
“We had hundreds of people in the building Thursday morning,” she said, adding that the 12 dozen bagels put out at 8:30 in the morning were gone by noon. “We put them out again on Friday morning. It’s what and who we are – as a community center, as a people, and as human beings.
Roth said the YJCC staff was “wonderful, making people feel warm in every sense of the word. They were happy to be there and to be supportive. A lot of our members lost power, and many are still without power. Gary Lipman, our CEO, didn’t hesitate. He thought that we needed to be open to everybody. It’s who we are and what we do.”
According to the communications director, the facility resumed its regular programming on the Friday following the storm and is “up and running.”
On Shabbat, the YJCC reached out to Temple Beth Or, also in Washington Township, offering them use of the community center for Saturday services. As a result, two girls from that synagogue had their bat mitzvah ceremonies at the YJCC.
“We were happy to enable this simcha to take place at our facility since Beth Or had no power,” Roth said. “The rabbi (Ruth Zlotnick), president, and the families were extremely grateful.”
Roth said the YJCC is “assessing as we go along – ready and willing to do whatever we can to reach out to the broader community.”
Joanne Palmer contributed to this report.