When the lights went out, they found community

When the lights went out, they found community

Rockland congregations, residents weather Sandy - together

Marla Cohen is a freelance writer. She lives in Rockland County.

New City Jewish Center held shachrit by natural light as the sun rose during the morning service.

Temple Beth Torah in Upper Nyack had been without power since “Superstorm” Sandy – reportedly the largest ever Atlantic hurricane – swept into Rockland County on Oct. 29. The following Thursday, Temple Beth Torah in Upper Nyack, a Reform congregation, was still without power.

So was Nyack’s Congregation Sons of Israel, a Conservative synagogue.

With Shabbat approaching, neither CSI’s Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham, nor TBT’s Rabbi Brian Beal was sure what they were going to do about Friday night and Saturday morning services. It took Mother Alon White of Grace Episcopal Church to offer a solution.

“I ran into Rabbi Beal downtown,” said White, who along with the rabbi was attending a Q&A run by Nyack’s Mayor Jen White, to keep residents updated about the gas and electricity problems in the area.

“We had just gotten our electricity back and he muttered something about not having any, and I said, ‘You can come worship at our church.'”

For Beal, it was a timely offer. The congregation that week was supposed to have a communal Friday night dinner in any case. The storm, however, robbed nearly everyone of power and heat, and it was likely that far more people would be in need of a Shabbat meal than had signed up for the dinner. Both he and Abraham therefore, decided to join together to sponsor the dinner – a cold Shabbat potluck. The two congregations, led by both rabbis and Cantor Sally Neff of TBT, came together for Friday night services; on Saturday, each held their own services at the church.

“It was nothing they had to do,” said Abraham of the church. “I’m not sure every church would have done it. They were so nice and accommodating.”

The dinner attracted about 130 people, and the leftovers were given the next day to people who came to services but who did not have lunch to go home to. “They got tuna and egg salad. It sounded simple, but it really made a difference for them,” said Abraham.

When the power came on at Temple Beth Torah on Saturday, Beal thought to offer the building on 9W to St. John Deliverance Tabernacle, Emmanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church and St. Anne’s Catholic Church.

“This is more of an extension than a starting point,” said Beal, of the way the area’s faith communities worked together to get through the aftermath of Sandy. “The interfaith community has worked very hard to have the churches, synagogues and now a mosque, work together.”

Sandy hit Rockland County, tearing down trees and flooding homes, especially those in the river towns of Nyack and Piermont. About 250,000 of Orange and Rockland Utilities 300,000 customers lost power throughout New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Nearly 100,000 of those outages were in Rockland County, the highest number of any county covered by the utility.

Power was not fully restored in the county until Saturday, Nov. 10, 13 days after the storm first knocked out power lines and transformers across New York’s smallest county. Yet in that shared misery that Sandy brought, many found a sense of community and even pride as individuals and organizations reached out to one another, as did the two synagogues and one church in Nyack, to offer assistance and comfort as the days grew darker and colder.

In the first days after the storm, most congregations were without power. Some, like, Orangetown Jewish Center and Nanuet Hebrew Center, saw their power restored by Tuesday. Both congregations let members know they had light and heat, and invited people to come in from the cold, and also to charge their cell phones and computers.

JCC Rockland had that and one more highly prized item – warm showers. As the week stretched on, the showers, which normally have no wait, began having lines as members and non-members came to use them. No one was turned away.

Exiled from their offices, people began setting up makeshift ones in the FitCafe, the social hall, and the library.

“I came to take a shower and saw everyone hooked up to the Internet yesterday, fighting for an outlet,” joked Marti Laxner, of New City, who works for a marketing research company that operates on site at PepsiCo in Purchase.

Caroline Treadway, a clinical editor for a physician website, was planning to come back to the JCC if her power did not come back the next day. “The coffee shops are so crowded,” said the Nyack resident. “And I definitely need the Internet.”

According to David Kirschtel, chief executive officer of JCC Rockland, people understood that the Rockland Jewish Community Campus “offered them a home away from home during a difficult time.

“Although we obviously never set out to be an emergency shelter in this way, that people felt good about the campus and knew that it was there for them really demonstrated a unique role it plays in the community.”

On the Sunday following the storm, the Jewish Federation of Rockland County hosted a pancake breakfast for the community in the campus, as it began to collect clothing and food for those in need.

The Conservative-affiliated New City Jewish Center remained in the dark the longest. It was the last of the Rockland County Board of Rabbis-affiliated congregations to get power restored, with the lights and heat not turning back on until Nov. 7.

The daily morning minyan went on as usual – just in the cold and dark. Shabbat services also were a somewhat surreal experience in the low, natural light that filtered into the sanctuary.

Evening minyan was held at the Conservative Nanuet Hebrew Center, located about three miles south of NCJC. Nanuet even opened its doors on Sunday night, an evening when the shul does not usually have a service.

“Nanuet brought their group too, and extras who came to help make sure we had a minyan,” said NCJC’s Assistant Rabbi Jeremy Ruberg. “No one was saying ‘you’re from here, you’re from there.’ There was even a moment when Rabbi Kurland [Nanuet’s rabbi] and I looked at each other and thought, ‘We should do this more often.'”

For Nanuet’s Rabbi Paul Kurland, opening his doors to a synagogue in need made perfect sense. “We often take advantage of their minyan when we don’t have it,” he said. NCJC has the only daily morning and evening minyan of the county’s five Conservative congregations. Nanuet also held a community Shabbat dinner open to whoever showed up. The congregation lost power, however, about 20 minutes before people began arriving. With the Shabbat candles lit, everyone prayed by candlelight. About half way through davening, the lights returned. After the meal was over, no one wanted to leave, said Kurland, describing the evening as very special.

“Jewish life does not stop,” said Ruberg, noting that through the entire powerless week, NCJC held services, an aufruf and a funeral. “Power or no power, it goes on. People want to come to their shul.”

Jonah Kelly contributed to this report.

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