While Jewish institutions in the Philadelphia area emerged from the recent storm relatively unscathed, such was not the case in New York and New Jersey, where the total cost of the devastation is still being assessed.
Rabbi Lawrence Sernovitz believes there’s a certain irony that Hurricane Sandy fell just a couple of weeks after the Torah portion focused on the story of Noah. In his view, God has kept his promise once again not to wipe out humanity with a colossal flood.
“There is a lot of flooding, but the world is not destroyed,” said the assistant rabbi of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am, a Reform synagogue in Abington that by mid-week had gotten its power back.
In and around Philadelphia, it seemed that most Jewish institutions emerged from the storm relatively unscathed. Such was not the case in New York and New Jersey, where the total cost of the devastation, including to the Jersey shore, is still not known.
A Jewish man, Jacob Vogelman and a Jewish woman, University of Pennsylvania graduate Jessie Streich-Kest were killed in Brooklyn by a falling tree as they walked a dog, JTA reported.
Another major event, a Nov. 1 town hall meeting organized by the Republican Jewish Coalition, was moved from Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel to Gratz College because the synagogue lacked power a day before it was set to happen.
Schools remained closed through most of the week, and a number of synagogues and many Jewish homes remained without power, though officials said they hoped to be up and running by Shabbat.
The Jersey shore was a different story and the status of Jewish institutions there was less certain.
The role that technology played in keeping people abreast of the storm became a story in and of itself, as plenty of developments — and not a few false rumors — broke via Twitter.
Sernovitz said that even though many of his synagogue’s members lacked electricity in their homes, he was able to keep tabs on many of them because they were using charged mobile devices to post updates on Facebook.
And so, for a brief period, Facebook functioned in a way that critics claim it never does: bringing people together for actual, in-person socializing.
At Ahava Zarembski’s house in Center City, this resulted in a pre-hurricane lunch and dance party.
“That happened because I was posting online what I’m doing, which was basically cooking and baking and telling people to come over. And they did,” she said. “People were stuck and getting cooped up. There was this weird energy and excitement, where energy meets fear. People felt the need to be together.”
The Web also functioned as a way for congregations to reach out for help.
Rabbi Yehuda Shemtov of Chabad Lubavitch of Bucks County used a mass email to appeal for a 5500-watt generator to get his synagogue running. Within one day, he had lined it up and once again used email to let the wider community know of the outcome.
Down the shore, by all accounts, Sandy had brought devastation — though perhaps not as bad as initially feared. Midweek, it was still unclear when authorities would allow residents to return to southern Jersey’s flooded barrier islands.
Despite this, Chabad Rabbi Avrohom Rapoport, who runs a shul in Ventnor, managed to get back on in order to aid congregants and others. He said Margate had been hit particularly hard.
“There’s debris and sand all over the streets. Cars are in people’s gardens,” he said. “We’re going door to door and boiling soup.”
Before the storm hit, Rapoport had taken his family to the home of a rabbinic colleague in Gloucester County. Even though officials were not allowing most civilians to return to Absecon Island, Rapoport said he got back by hooking up with a construction crew and dressing like a worker.
He said that, despite the fact that much of the island lacked electricity, he was going to find some way to serve a hot Shabbat meal to those living amid the shambles.
Long Beach Island, to the north of Absecon Island, was reportedly among the hardest hit areas in New Jersey. A picture of the island’s only synagogue building, the Jewish Community of Long Beach Island, showed a water line, but it’s not clear if the inside was flooded.
Rose Valentine, a former president of the shul that is not affiliated with any movement, said no one has yet been inside, so it is not clear whether or not the integrity of the structure has been comprised.
Valentine, like most of her fellow congregants who live on the island year round, left before the storm came. Valentine went to her son’s house in Princeton, N.J., which she said lacked power but was safe.
But from the few members who remained behind, mostly those who own businesses there, Valentine has heard about flooded houses and destroyed properties and stores.
As of midweek, it was still expected to be at least another seven to 10 days before residents could return to their homes.
“This is going to change the community. Hopefully, we will all rally around each other,” she said. “We are all worried. We don’t know what to look for in the future. But we are alive and we are grateful.”
TO GET HELP
Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is teaming up with Jewish Family and Children’s Services to offer assistance to those in our community affected by Hurricane Sandy. If you need help, call the designated hotline at 1-866-JFCS-NOW (532-7669) or visit: www.jfcsphilly.org/hurricanerelief or www.jewishphilly.org.