Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thoughts on Hurricane Sandy and Hoboken: "Many waters cannot extinguish love"

Below is our most recent update on the impact of Hurricane Sandy on our synagogue's community and activities. This update will also be reprinted in the Shofar Newsletter for the coming month. Please feel free to forward it to friends and relatives who might be interested in how our Jewish community is faring after the storm --and especially to those who have inquired about how they can assist. 


http://rebuildhoboken.org/images/hoboken.jpg
photo taken just a couple of blocks from the United Synagogue of Hoboken.  Photo is from the Rebuild Hoboken website (www.rebuildhoboken.org)
מַיִם רַבִּים לֹא יוּכְלוּ לְכַבּוֹת אֶת הָאַהֲבָה וּנְהָרוֹת לֹא יִשְׁטְפוּהָ.


“Many waters cannot extinguish love,
Nor can rivers drown it.”  (Song of Songs 8:7)

These past three weeks have been among the most troubling of my life, but also among the most exhilarating.  I am posting here some updates about the impact of Hurricane Sandy on our community, the current state of the recovery in our community, and some practical suggestions for how we can help, whether we are in Hoboken or elsewhere around the world.

1.  Impact on the synagogue building and communal activities:  I am addressing the impact on our synagogue building first, not because it is the most important or drastic way that the storm affected our community, but simply because it is a convenient place to start.   While our building suffered significant damage, we feel very fortunate that our programmatic spaces were not affected by flooding. The most seriously affected area, of course, was our basement, which was under 7 feet of water.  After getting it pumped out after a couple of days of the storm, we removed all its contents (with the assistance of Nechama - a Jewish Response to Disaster, see below, together with a team of USH volunteers) and got the space professionally cleaned and remediated.  The most significant losses were our one-year-old boiler and our hot water heater; as of this writing (November 19), we are still awaiting the boiler replacement.  We had some emotional Shabbat services in our building just six days after the storm, with lights provided by generator power; many of us recited the Birkat ha-Gomel, the Blessing of Thanksgiving, recognizing that despite the catastrophe that we had experienced, individually and communally, things could have been even worse.

Within the following week, many of our synagogue activities resumed.  Learning Center classes resumed in alternate locations (the Yifrakh/Sotto home, and the Hudson School) while our building was still without power.  The 100 block of Park Avenue may have been the very last block in Hoboken to have its power restored; the power came on in the early afternoon on Friday November 9, and our electricians enabled power to be restored to our building just a few hours later.  Even if they had not, however, we had assembled an impressive backup plan to power our building with generators for Shabbat services and Sebastian Haas’s bar mitzvah.  By two weeks after the storm, all our synagogue activities had resumed their regular schedule.


Numerous people played a role in getting us back up and running, including our “First Responders” (Steve Sperber, Rick Stempler, Jon Gellman, Rob and Julie Harari, Matt Meistrich, Barry Grossman, Mike Marcello); those who loaned their heaters and generators while our building and school were without power (Jon Gellman, Masha Golubchik, Carol Kaplan, Mitchell Levine and Cathy Cruz Levine, Ari and Anna Novosyolok, Valdi and Lauren Sapira, Martin and Tracy Schnabel, Erica Silbiger, Steve Sperber and Phannee Noiplai, Sharon Stern, David Swirnoff and Merry Firschein); those who helped empty out the basement of our building together with our custodial staff and volunteer group, Nechama Jewish Response to Disaster (Lauren Blumenfeld, Drew Moss, Marcia Orange, Robert Strell, Coby Strell and his friend, Hunter; Wendy Setzer, Dayna Sessa, Alan Welner; Adam Strosberg); those who repaired the emergency stairs and supply closet (Joe Epstein, Mark Glass, David Kalmus), those in our synagogue leadership who steered the process of the remediation of our building (Steve Sperber, Rick Stempler, Jim Weinstein, Myrna Kasser, Lauren Blumenfeld, Samantha Myers), and our USH staff (Rachelle Grossman, Grace Gurman-Chan, Marni Gold, and especially Facilities Manager Anita Belle, Office Manager Laura Forino, and Maintenance Staff Michaelson Alexis).    We are also overcome with gratitude for the very generous donations, from our community and from around the world, that have come in to our Hurricane Sandy Remediation Fund to assist us in our recovery costs.  (Donations received before the Shofar deadline will be listed in the December Shofar.)

2.  Impact on our synagogue community:  Within the first couple of days after the storm, we began an effort to check in with every member of USH to find out how people were doing, who had endured what damage, whose power was restored, who needed a place to stay, etc.  We were horrified, but sadly unsurprised, to hear story after story of our members stranded in their homes, being evacuated by the National Guard, enduring damage to basements and storage areas, enduring the loss of cars, and in all too many cases, enduring the loss of living space.  Even those who did not endure any damage to their property experienced a terrifying disaster.  For those who did lose property, the crisis continues, and our communal attention now turns to them, to be as supportive as we are able.

Beyond the individual phone calls, we created an event on Thursday evening November 15, called the “Hurricane Hagomel Dinner and Community Meeting.”  This free dinner (through the generosity of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) gave our community the chance to come together to commiserate about our experience, and for people in our community who had been maximally affected to consult with representatives from FEMA, Jewish Family Service, Jewish Federations of North America, and experts in the legal, insurance, and mental health implications of disasters like this one.  


During those early days after the storm, many of us who are usually accustomed to being extremely self-sufficient found ourselves growing in comfort with asking others for help - for a place to stay, a place to charge devices and use wifi, a hot shower, or assistance with cleanup.  For those who are feeling the continuing impact of the storm for weeks and months to come, please know that you do not need to endure this burden alone.  One of our most important tasks as a community is to help you to learn about the various communal resources that are available to share your burden.


We’re grateful to Myrna Kasser, Elissa Aaronson, Hope Koturo, Ken Schept, Cindy Altberger, Marni Kriegel, Louise Kurtz, Ariel Russo, and many others for reaching out to our members and planning the Hagomel Dinner.  It could not have taken place without the support of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (www.uscj.org) (and the support of Rabbi Paul Drazen, Jennifer Stofman, and Rabbi Eliseo Rozenwasser), Jewish Federations of North America (www.jfna.org) (and Ed Finkel and Martin Greenberg of the Network of Independent Communities, and Steven Woolf, Senior Counsel, JFNA Disaster Relief), Jewish Family Service of Metrowest (www.jfsmetrowest.org) (and Executive Director Reuben Rotman, Jayne Sayovitz, and Lauren Hennion), Toni Moen of FEMA, Michael Blumenfeld, Jeremy Garlock, Rabbi Naomi Kalish, April Harris of the Hoboken Emergency Food Pantry, Jaclyn Cherubini of the Hoboken Shelter, Bill Driscoll Jr of Nechama, Rabbi Debby Hachen of Temple Beth El, and many others working behind the scenes.
(You can see the program for the

3.  How to help, #1:  Volunteer Opportunities: Nechama - a Jewish Response to Disaster (www.nechama.org)

The first few days after the storm, thousands upon thousands of volunteers worked around the clock in Hoboken, checking in on elderly and other vulnerable residents, delivering prescriptions, staffing phone emergency lines, delivering and distributing clothing, food, and other necessities, and beginning the long process of post-storm clean-up.  Within a week of the storm, I had met volunteers from Texas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other locations, who had all come to Hoboken to be with us in our time of need and to help us to heal.

Of all the organizations that provided volunteers on the ground in Hoboken, I want to single out one for special attention:  a Minnesota-based organization called Nechama - a Jewish Response to Disaster.  This organization, funded by the American Jewish community nationwide, organizes volunteers to clean up damaged properties whose owners (whether organizations or individuals) would have a hard time hiring someone to do that work.  USH member Bette Birnbaum, a Nechama board member, immediately made a connection between Nechama and the City of Hoboken.  Within just a couple of days after the storm, Nechama volunteers began the process of clearing debris from non-profit buildings in Hoboken such as Our Lady of Grace Church and the In Jesus’ Name Food Pantry, the Hoboken Multi-Service Center, and the Boys and Girls Club.  The Monday morning after the storm, the Nechama team coordinated our USH team of volunteers in clearing out the USH basement.  Nechama was instrumental in clearing all polling locations in Hoboken so that elections could take place the week following the storm.


In the last couple of weeks, we have greeted volunteers from around the New York area who have arrived to Hoboken to volunteer with Nechama.  On Friday November 9, the volunteers were a group of National Conference of Synagogue Youth high school students, who had been scheduled for a volunteer trip to New Orleans but changed their itinerary to spend the day in Hoboken instead.  Other individuals and groups from synagogues, universities and schools, and Jewish communal organizations -- Jews and non-Jews - have come to volunteer with Nechama.  We had the great honor to meet Nechama Executive Director Bill Driscoll Jr at our Hurricane Hagomel Dinner and Community Meeting to learn more about the organization’s work.   As the recovery effort progresses, they expect to leave Hoboken and spend more time in the very hard hit areas of Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island, and the Jersey Shore.

When I am asked by people outside of the local area, “How can I help?”  my first answer is:  if you want to do some serious dirty-clothes volunteering, contact Nechama.  You can sign up as a volunteer at www.nechama.org.  After seeing the impact of Nechama on our community, there are many people from our synagogue who plan to volunteer with Nechama in other affected New York area locations.  Nechama’s capacity to help, and the number of volunteer sites they can work on simultaneously, is dependent on the donations they receive.  What an extraordinary way to put Jewish values in action!

4.  How to help #2: Tzedakah opportunities:  Disaster Relief Organizations

Individuals and organizations will continue to have manifold needs long after Nechama concludes their hands-on clean-up work.  The Disaster Relief Fund of Jewish Federations of North America (www.jfna.org) provides supplemental funding for the range of organizations that provide immediate and long-range disaster relief.  In our area, much of this supplemental funding is going to the Jewish Family Service of Metrowest, and its parallel organizations in New York City and elsewhere in the New York area, because of the dramatically increased numbers of clients they are now serving, and the dramatically increased needs of those clients.  The advice and assistance of Jewish Federations of North America, and especially of Ed Finkel, Northeast Region Director of the Network of Independent Communities, has been so valuable to our community during these difficult weeks.

The Disaster Relief Fund of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (www.uscj.org) also addresses important disaster relief needs, with a special focus on affected Conservative congregations.  We are so grateful for the support of USCJ at this time of crisis in our congregation’s history.  We are also grateful that we can contribute to this fund to assist congregations that are significantly more affected than we are -- such as Temple Beth El of Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn (http://templebethelmb.org/), whose large building was flooded in this catastrophe.


The City of Hoboken, working with the Hoboken Rotary Club, has established the Rebuild Hoboken Fund (www.rebuildhoboken.org)

These are only a few of the appropriate destinations for storm-related tzedakah.  I also encourage our community to consider the Hoboken Shelter (www.hobokenshelter.org); Emergency Food Pantry (http://injesusnamecharities.org/); Jubilee Center (www.jubileecenterhoboken.org) - These organizations have always been our close partners in the hesed work of our congregation with Hoboken’s most vulnerable population -- and since the storm, their needs have only increased.


We read in the biblical book of Song of Songs, “Many waters cannot extinguish love; rivers cannot drown it.” (8:7)  Our city’s streets, buildings, cars, and homes may have been flooded, but the love in our hearts has not been extinguished; it has grown.  May we fulfill our commitments to those who have lost so much in this storm, not to leave them to suffer in loneliness.  May we respond to this storm by redoubling our commitment to hesed, to acts of love and compassion and dedication to each other.

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