In 2005, Harris Bookfor, a disaster-relief volunteer for the American Red Cross, flew to Florida to assist in the wake of Hurricane Wilma's destruction. Since then, he's assisted when other, more-local disasters have struck, like the recent, massive Conshohocken apartment-house fire. So when Hurricane Ike struck the Gulf Coast in September, the Plymouth Meeting resident said he was once again "motivated to go and help."
From Sept. 19 until Oct. 3, Bookfor put his life as a Realtor on hold and flew to Texas, where he prepared and handed out meals, and also served as a radio operator. Though he had seen reports on the extent of the damage, Bookfor said he wasn't prepared for the devastation he was faced with when he arrived.
"When I got closer to Galveston, I saw boats on the side of the interstate," said Bookfor. "Billboards were snapped in half, houses with total destruction. On side streets, people's entire lives were sitting out on the lawn, waiting to be picked up."
Even though he is now back home, Bookfor hasn't forgotten the destruction he witnessed all over the Gulf Coast, and now his synagogue, Beth Tikvah-B'nai Jeshurun in Erdenheim, is also reaching out to assist the two Galveston synagogues ravaged by Hurricane Ike.
Bookfor knew he would be in Galveston when the High Holidays began; so, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, he joined about 100 congregants of Temple B'nai Israel for services. Since 80 percent to 90 percent of the island was without electricity, said Bookfor, the services had to be conducted outdoors on the patio of the reform congregation, which had suffered extensive water damage. He said worshippers sat on folding chairs, and their rabbi, Jimmy Kessler, advised them to bring bug spray.
"I'll never forget the eerie silence," said Bookfor. "No power. Birds, bees and prayers [were] all you could hear. It was one of the most heartwarming things I've ever experienced."
When the shofar sounded, it echoed, added Bookfor.
Bookfor noted that B'nai Israel has building insurance, so, for now, it might not need assistance. But the other synagogue on the island, the conservative Congregation Beth Jacob, was not as lucky; it lost "nearly everything" under three to four feet of water, reported Bookfor.
In the days following the storm, according to Kathleen Sukiennik, the synagogue administrator, mold set in, and "the kitchen looks like a disaster zone." If that weren't bad enough, a swastika was drawn on one of the boarded-up walls of the shul.
"I have moments where I start crying," said Sukiennik. "It's been hard."
Sukiennik said Beth Jacob is a close-knit congregation with about 70 families, mostly older members who have attended the shul for more than 50 years. However, with 75 percent of the homes and businesses flooded, there is nowhere for them to return to yet — if they return at all. But the synagogue wants to repair at least part of the shul, which dates back to the early 1930s.
The Erdenheim synagogue's assistance efforts are being spearheaded by Rabbi Saul Grife, executive director Valarie Hurwitz, Bookfor and the synagogue's Yad L'Yad ("Helping Hands") social-action committee.
President Jan Zacharjacz said BTBJ expects to donate prayerbooks and office supplies, as well as holiday gift baskets come Chanukah. She added that local synagogues that want to get involved can contact the BTBJ office to assist in "reach[ing] out to our Galveston friends."