Jewish Organizations Scrambled To Help Needy During Hurricane Sandy

Jewish Organizations Scrambled To Help Needy During Hurricane Sandy
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Museum of Jewish HeritageOn Tuesday morning, a few hours after the most fearsome hurricane in New York history delivered a knockout punch here, Yanky Meyer spent an hour in a southern Brooklyn neighborhood that had briefly turned into one of the city’s most dangerous.

Meyer, director of the Misaskim emergency crisis organization, went to Sea Gate, a gated community that borders on Gravesend Bay, to help shepherd some holdouts to safety.

Standing at the doors of a pair of school buses donated for the day by Brooklyn yeshivot, he coordinated the volunteers from his organization and from the Hatzalah volunteer ambulance corps who were leading several dozen members of the Jewish community, who had remained in their Sea Gate homes despite pleas from city officials to evacuate as Sandy approached, from the synagogue where they had gathered that morning.

“It was a war zone. There was debris everywhere,” Meyer told The Jewish Week later that day. The people, of “all ages,” including many aging Holocaust survivors, came almost empty-handed, some gripping paper shopping bags filled with “emergency” items.

The buses took the displaced Sea Gate residences to relatives and synagogues in Borough Park that had offered shelter until it’s safe to return to their homes.

Misaskim and Hatzalah were major participants in the city-wide initiative in the last week to educate the Jewish community about the impending storm, and to assist area Jews who needed aid after Sandy struck.

Though the buildings of Jewish institutions and homes of members of the Jewish community suffered extensive damage when the hurricane blew into New York City Monday afternoon – including the Shorefront Y, which may be out of commission for an indefinite period, and a Kings Bay Y site for senior and kids programs that was to open Monday night, destroyed at a cost of $40,000-$50,000 – no casualties or deaths in the community were reported as of Jewish Week press time. “That’s the most important thing,” said David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

It is too early to estimate the financial cost of the damage suffered this week by the Jewish community, Pollock said.

Unlike the stubborn Sea Gate residents helped by Misaskim, many had earlier left there for safer, dryer locations, and hundreds of elderly Jews elsewhere in the region were part of a coordinated evacuation effort.

“I think we’re better prepared” this time, Pollock said. “People take it seriously

Hundreds of members of the Jewish community in areas at risk of flooding took part in evacuations on Sunday, some by themselves, some with the help of community organizations, Pollock said. That included five sheltered residences for senior citizens under the auspices of JASA – two in Far Rockaway, Queens, and three in southern Brooklyn – and a growing community of émigrés from the former Soviet Union who live in southern and eastern Staten Island.

“We were prepared” for the hurricane, said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. He said the growing prominence of emails, texting and social media enabled participants in the community’s rescue effort to easily communicate with each other, especially when land lines and cell phones were not working.

Before Hurricane Sandy struck the New York City area,, the Jewish community took steps to protect its members and property. As the winds and rain approached the tri-state area, moving up the Easter Seaboard, several lectures, dinner and other programs were cancelled.

Before the effects of the storm began to subside by late Tuesday and Wednesday, the day-to-day functions of most Jewish organizations shut down, while the concentration shifted to keeping employees, residents of Jewish-run residence buildings, and property safe. Among the closed institutions in Manhattan on the early days of Sandy were the major rabbinical schools, yeshivas and day schools, Jewish community centers, synagogues and headquarters of national Jewish organizations.

Evacuations were ordered in Brooklyn’s heavily Jewish Brighton Beach and Coney Island neighborhoods, and in lower Manhattan’s Battery Park City, all located near bodies of water.

Masbia, the kosher food pantry and network of free soup kitchens in Brooklyn and Queens, was closed on Monday but distributed extra food to its indigent recipients on Sunday, as did food programs under the auspices of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.

Misaskim, the Orthodox, Borough Park-based organization whose volunteers offer a variety of assistance to people during their mourning period, activated its Emergency Operations Center to help coordinate the Jewish community’s dealings with emergency and law enforcement agencies, and distributed a limited number of generators to people with medical conditions, and a wedding hall in Monsey where a wedding took place Monday night.

While El Al passengers will be able to change the dates of their cancelled flights without a financial penalty, thousands of Israeli airline passengers whose flights to the US were cancelled because of the hurricane will not be entitled to monetary compensation, because the storm is considered an act of God, Haaretz reported. Those passengers, however, will receive their money back or be eligible to an alternate flight on the cancelled route.

The website reported that, in addition to “several Israelis … stuck in New York,” a “young Jerusalem resident” who was to get married on Thursday in the US to his New York fiancée faced the prospect that the widespread cancellation of flights was likely to keep his family members in Israel from attending. “The situation is made even more taxing,” ynet reported, “by the fact that the ultra-Orthodox couple cannot communicate [during the week] before the wedding, so all the arrangements must be mediated by the parents.”

Few members of the Jewish community on the Lower East Side, located on the East River, apparently moved out this week on the eve of the storm, said William Rapfogel, executive director of Met Council and a lifelong resident of the neighborhood. Younger neighbors made an orchestrated effort to help older residents, he said, and local rabbis organized daily prayer minyans in many of the major apartment buildings that have sizable Jewish populations, to prevent residents from missing a worship service.

“I see people on the street,” he said on Monday. The morning minyan at the Bialystoker Synagogue was “pretty busy.”

As the threat of the cutoff of electricity and cell phone service loomed, a website that serves the Orthodox community,, posted a notice on “How To Stay Connected During Hurricane Sandy.” Send text messages instead of using phones for making calls, the website advised, “because text messages use much less network capacity. They also don’t use much battery power.”

Staffers of Jewish Home Lifecare, which provides health care services and assistance for the elderly and their caregivers on campuses in the Bronx, Manhattan and Westchester, and also serves clients in their homes, reached out this week to clients in their homes “to check on their safety and make sure they have necessary support,” an update issued by the agency stated. “Community Services staff have worked to get support to the clients” in their homes, “including delivery of food and other necessities.

“Community Services Nurses are visiting clients with critical medical needs in their homes to administer necessary treatments,” according to the update.

Seniors from JASA residences were taken, sometimes accompanied by JASA staff members, to local senior facilities not in danger of flooding, or emergency shelters.

The areas from which residents were ordered to evacuate were those designated as Zone A by New York City, mostly low-lying areas along the bodies of water that surround or border most of the Greater New York area. Among these areas are Far Rockaway, Sea Gate, Coney Island, Manhattan Beach, the perimeter of Staten Island, and southern Manhattan.

The Shorefront Y in Brighton Beach boarded up its windows on Sunday, using pieces of plywood it keeps in storage on the roof, Pollock said, The Y was among several local Jewish institutions that had bought the supplies using funds that UJA-Federation had earmarked since 9-11 for “emergency planning.”

During the last week, he said, JCRC has served as a clearinghouse for storm-related information, working with city agencies and the Red Cross. Its security blog ( posted regular updates, including weather reports, advising for dealing with the hurricane, and other useful information.

Rabbi Potasnik said many long-planned events like weddings and bar-bat mitzvah parties has to be called off or postponed on Sunday and Monday, and Jewish families who suffered a loss then were unable to arrange an immediate burial. “We can’t find any cemeteries that are open,” Rabbi Potasnik said.

Among the cancelled events this week was a screening of the movie “Defiance,” about World War II Jewish partisans, at Symphony Space in Manhattan. The event, sponsored by the School News Nationwide organization, was to feature speeches by a Holocaust survivor, and a son of one of the Bielski brothers who had led the resistance group.

For some Jewish organizations, a priority was protecting its valuables.

“Our Torah has been lovingly sealed in plastic” and stored in a safe location,” Rabbi Darren Levine of Tamid NYC – The Downtown Synagogue, a congregation in lower Manhattan, informed congregants in an email message. “We’re mobilizing a volunteer team to work with other agencies to be ready for the clean up effort in Lower Manhattan alter this week.”

At the Kings Bay Y in Brooklyn, which remained closed on Monday and Tuesday, two non-Jewish members of the maintenance staff volunteered to stay overnight at the building, to monitor if any damage happened during the height of the storm, said Leonard Petlakh, executive director. They told him, in jest, that “any hurricane is better than staying with our wives at home,” Petlakh said.

Ken Soloway, assistant executive director of the Kings Bay Y, said he was inundated this week with messages of support from Y members and members of the wider Jewish community, many offering assistance.

“This is bringing us together,” Soloway said of the hurricane. He said he is considering some sort of follow-up program to sustain that camaraderie. “Something good has to come out of this.”

“There has been a nice amount of reaching out within the community to make sure people are safe and comfortable,” said Rabbi Ora Horn Prouser, executive vice president of the Jewish Academy for Religion in Yonkers. “I also know that many alumni and students have taken steps in their own communities to make sure that especially those who are alone or in need of assistance are cared for.

“Whenever you are in a community of clergy and spiritual thinkers many have taken this opportunity to think and share what this all means in terms of community, our relationship with nature, the human divine relationship and much more,” Rabbi Prouser said.

The Riverdale Y, which was closed on Monday and Tuesday, opened its bathrooms and showers on Tuesday to members of the community, who had lost electric power, to use the Y facilities and recharge their sell phones.

“I know that last night [Monday] during the height of the storm three were 40 people praying in a minyan in Borough Park, enabling mourners to say Kaddish,” Rabbi Potasnik says.

The homepage of the Union for Reform Judaism this week included a link to “Prayers and readings in response to natural disasters.”

Rabbi Anchelle Perl, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Mineola, said he spent much of his time this week offering spiritual encouragement via emails and phone calls.

“Reaching out spiritually, especially in times of worry and fear like this, is very important,” he told “People need to keep their spirits up.” On Monday he delivered kosher food to a teenager at a nearby detention center whose arraignment was postponed by the storm.

In the Bronx, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale issued an email notice on Monday that a member of the congregation, who was sitting shiva this week, needed a quorum of worshippers for that day’s afternoon mincha prayer service. The synagogue probably feared that a minyan would not turn out for the member’s 1:30 p.m. mincha, which would be in addition to HIR’s regular mincha later that day, said a member of the congregation who drove to the member’s home.

About 40 other Jews from Riverdale showed up too, said the HIR member, who asked not to be identified. Members from several Riverdale congregations came. “Everyone figured that no one else would show up. I think most people drove.”

The weather that afternoon was not pleasant. “It wasn’t pouring,” the HIR member said. “It was blowing like crazy. There were limbs falling down.”

While nearly all Jewish organizations and educational institutions were closed on Monday, and many on Tuesday, in Manhattan – which was cut off from the outer boroughs for several days when subway service was suspended and most bridges and tunnels were closed – where the bulk of the organized Jewish community is based, many offices in the outer boroughs, especially in heavily Orthodox neighborhoods remained open.

A 12-member crew spent most of Sunday afternoon moving and protecting several vulnerable artifacts at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A living Memorial to the Holocaust, said Betsy Aldredge, public relations manager. After the hurricane’s height on Monday, maintenance workers reported water in the basement and in the switch room, Aldredge said.

The removed items included a Czech Torah that survived the Holocaust, a wedding display that included a full-sized chupah, an early 20th-Century sukkah from Hungary, and a Sephardic oud musical instrument, all of which were displayed on the first floor; all were moved to a third-floor office.

The museum is located in Battery Park City on the shore of the New York harbor, overlooking Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The entrances to the building were sandbagged on Sunday, Aldredge said; the museum was closed on Monday.

A Fazioli piano in the museum’s theater was wrapped in plastic, to protect it against possible water damage, artifacts from the current Hava Nagila exhibit, in a gallery underneath a skylight, were moved to a less vulnerable place in the building, and boxes in the gift shop were moved “out of harm’s way,” Aldredge said. “We did everything we could do.”

The museum took similar steps on the eve of Hurricane Irene’s arrival a year ago, she said. “That was our test run.

“We were lucky,” Aldredge said. The 2011 storm “was not as bad as expected.”

The museum closed a few hours early on Sunday. “A lot of tourists came in” to see its core and special exhibits, she said. About a dozen showed up for an Israeli dance class. “We wish more would have come … but the people who came were glad to be dancing here.”

The Jewish Center, a Modern Orthodox congregation on the Upper West Side, sent an email notice to members informing them that “all activities … other than daily Minyanim” would be postponed on Monday, and urging congregants to

“1. Ask elderly or homebound neighbors if you can assist them in any way.

“2. Check with your neighbors if you can assist them in any way.

“3. Check in on neighbors throughout the next several days.”

Representatives of several local congregations said their synagogues sent similar reminders to their members.

“A crisis brings out best in people who think about welfare of others even when they are hurting,” Rabbi Potasnik said. “I just received call from former Gov. [David] Paterson asking if I am OK.”

Rapfogel said some home attendants hired by Met Council stayed during the height of the storm at the homes of people who required medical attention, and others walked from their homes to clients’ homes.

The Jewish Community Project, a Jewish community organization that offers a variety of programs in Manhattan’s Tribeca area, sent the “general community” links to “key government and weather services,” and an email “hotline” for people needing assistance.

Rabbi Shimon Kramer of the Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Merrick, L.I., sent out a notice to supporters. “If there is something we can help you with, such as flashlights, food, water, or the like, please contact us,” the rabbi stated.

The Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidic movement’s network of shluchim (emissaries) offered relief to members of their surrounding Jewish communities, and offered housing to fellow shluchim who were forced to vacate their homes.

I’ve gotten calls from the four closest shluchim and they offered to take in my family and anyone else that needs a place to go,” said Rabbi Avrohom Rappoport, director of the Chabad House that serves New Jersey’s Atlantic and Cape May counties. “There’s really been a sense of community and concern from our extended family.”

Volunteers moved the Chabad House’s Torah scrolls to higher ground and put plast

Rabbi Eli and Beila Goodman, who live in Long Beach, L.I., and run the Chabad of the Beaches, spent Sunday sandbagging the ground floor of their apartment and synagogue, and helping other people do the same, before joining the evacuation of the water-side area.

Rabbi Yaakov Saacks of the Lubavitch Chai Center in Dix Hills, L.I., said he fielded many calls from people asking for D batteries. “Any ones I have,” I’ve give out,” he told the callers.

In Livingston, N.J., Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum held a walkathon Sunday morning on behalf of the local Friendship Circle, a Chabad program that pairs teenage volunteers with special needs children. Some 2,000 people showed up for the event.

Last year’s walkathon was postponed because of an imminent snowstorm.

Sunday’s event took place just in time. “It was a beautiful event, and everyone was happy to come out and catch some happiness before the craziness we might go through,” Rabbi Grossbaum said.

Rabbi Menachem Kaminker, director of the Israel Chabad Center in Cherry Hill, N.J., offered his Monday evening Torah study class on the phone this week, instead of in person, when it became evident that few, if any, students would venture outside. This week, instead of discussing the Torah portion of the week, he concentrated on “the hurricane, the blessing for it, etc.,” he told The Jewish Week.


“Baruch Hashem, it went great, although because power went out in some portions of our area,” Rabbi Kaminker said. A half-dozen people participated. “The power kept flickering, but we made it.”

At J. Levine Books & Judaica, which stayed open Sunday and Monday at its midtown location but closed early, owner Danny Levine says customers came in, in smaller numbers than usual, and asked for one particular item. Yahrzeit candles. “The 24-hour ones.”

The customers didn’t say whether they wanted the candles for memorial or lighting purposes, but suspects it was a little of each. For the former, members of the Jewish community don’t want to find themselves without the candles that are lit on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, Levine says. For the latter, a yahrzeit candle in a small glass a safe source of light. “Maybe [customers] are thinking it’s as good as a flashlight,” he says.

The customers’ demand for yahrzeit candles didn’t threaten to exhaust the store’s supply, Levine says. “We have plenty.”

The inconvenience of cancelled classes in the middle of the academic year did not seem to bother students at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. “So far, most of what I’ve seen is study, study, study,” one Stern student told the Jewish Week. “The hurricane conveniently hit right before midterms.”

The hurricane is likely to be the stuff of sermons in the coming days, says Rabbi Potasnik of the Board of Rabbis. “Whenever major event happens,” he says, “we as rabbis immediately ask ‘Is there a sermon here?’


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