Sandy Still Rages Two Weeks Later
By Malky Lowinger
Long Beach. Seagate. Far Rockaway. Manhattan Beach. Brighton Beach. Belle Harbor. Oceanside. Thriving Jewish communities that once evoked images of tranquil seaside living near gentle and peaceful bodies of water. Who would have ever imagined that a storm would present these precious kehillos, and all the rest of us, with their greatest challenge?
Until recently, these communities were part of the rich tapestry that represents Klal Yisroel in Northeastern United States. Now, all that has dramatically changed. It’s two weeks since Sandy has changed the lives of thousands of yidden, many of them forever. As time progresses, the immediate needs are taken care of, but the depth and the extent of the devastation only now begins to sink in. Ever resourceful, Klal Yisroel rises to the challenge and copes despite many setbacks and frustrations. The following is an update on how these people are faring:
“At first,” says Rabbi Wakslak, rov of YILB (Young Israel of Long Beach), “we were all working on adrenalin. People were struggling to survive. The priorities were food, heat, electricity. But now the reality is setting in. This is when it begins to wear you down. People are just getting tired.”
Home is where the heart is, and when people’s homes are destroyed it puts a tremendous strain on their equilibrium. “Who ever heard of the concept of homelessness by yidden?” Rabbi Wakslak wonders aloud. Now we have homelessness en masse. After all, how long can someone live by a brother-in-law or a friend? The children’s schedules are disrupted and many adults lost their businesses and can’t even go to work. “It’s a balagan,” Rabbi Wakslak concludes.
Resourceful, community leaders organized a mini-concert for Sunday evening primarily to lift the people’s spirits. Chazzan Yosef Shtark was the featured performer, joined by a choir from Congregation Orach chaim and Benny Amar. It didn’t solve anyone’s problems, but it offered an opportunity to forget. Finally, people had a reason to smile.
Sunday brought desperately needed sunshine, and with it busloads of volunteers. Spirits were dramatically lifted when over 500 volunteers came to Long Beach to assist with the cleanup effort. “We had a bus from Boston,” Rabbi Wakslak says, “three from Manhattan, and others from Teaneck, West Hempstead, Plainview, and more. Everyone came with supplies. We sent teams of volunteers to clean out the homes. They really did a tremendous job.”
The power came back on for most residents of Long Beach, and, says Rabbi Wakslak, “that makes all the difference in the world.” But now that people can enter their homes and assess the damage, this is when they are discovering how bad it is. “Their boilers are ruined, they have no heating system, or they can’t turn on the power because water got into the system. Where are you going to find a plumber now?”
The Mesivta of Long Beach moved upstate to a new location. Other schools are borrowing facilities and convening in bits and pieces all over the area. “Everyone is in a state of flux” says Rabbi Wakslak. “Yet there’s a certain simcha in that we are all in this together. We must have been seventy or eighty people during seudas Shabbos in the shul. The fact that we are all together and singing zemiros together definitely gives chizuk.”
According to its Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Aaron Rapps, the Yeshiva of Manhattan Beach “just got a new address.” The Bostoner Beis Medrash had been its temporary home during the first week after Sandy, and now they have moved into K’hal Kesser Yisroel Mordechai in Flatbush. “Rabbi Platnick and the kehilla have been extremely gracious,” says Rabbi Rapps. “People in the area loaned us basements to serve as dorms for the bochurim. We’re finally setting up and we’re learning.”
As far as the Manhattan Beach community is concerned, Rabbi Rapps says, “they are trying to get their lives back together.” As the power begins to come back on in some homes, families are trickling back in to the area. But there’s a long road ahead of them.
One of the bochurim of the Yeshiva who is helping with the clean-up effort describes the mood in Manhattan Beach as “kind of like a funeral.” He says the pumping is, by and large, over and now residents are cleaning out seforim and shaimos from their homes. Another bochur says “People lost a lot of seforim, beds, and piles and piles of belongings.” He adds that the Department of Sanitation is being very helpful, taking all the garbage, “no matter how high the piles are.”
In Bayswater, community members are gratefully moving back into their homes. “Progress is definitely being made,” says Nochum Shapiro, Administrator of the Agudath Israel of Bayswater. “I can tell you personally that having power and a tank of gas makes a big difference in how you feel. You have heat and light and life is close to normal. Now we realize how fragile normal life can be.”
Nochum’s biggest concern right now is the shul, which sustained considerable damage during the storm. “Our short term goal is to get the place usable,” he explains. “Our long term goal is to build up and to convert what we have to different use.” A demolition team has cleaned out the shul “to the bare walls” as the first step in making the shul functional. Meanwhile the community, he says, is embarking on a fundraising campaign to “build the shul up” and construct a second floor on a higher level in the hope of avoiding any future flooding events. They are hoping that people outside of Bayswater will join the effort. “We are not a wealthy community,” says Nochum. “This shul was built by people scraping pennies together.”
The community of Sea Gate has always been somewhat isolated, considering its location at the very tip of Brooklyn. But when Sandy hit two weeks ago, it felt lonelier than ever before.
Now all that has changed. Klal yisroel has heard the cry and are rising to the challenge. On Sunday, says Pinny Dembitzer of Sea Gate, over 500 volunteers came to help, most notably four busloads from Baltimore. The Brooklyn based Chasdei Lev led the cleanup effort. “Slowly,” says Dembitzer, “we are rolling.”
The Sea Gate cleanup effort was well organized and efficient. Coordinators realized that the chaos needed to be sorted out with an orderly plan. Volunteers were immediately divided into groups led by group leaders, and each group was assigned to specific homes.
Ari, who led the Baltimore group, says that the 170 volunteers from his area left at 4:30 AM and arrived at about 8:00. They formed thirty two crews, and came wearing work boots and thick construction gloves. Some cleaned out the “seawater mixed with pollution mixed with sewage” from basements, others pumped gallons of water, and still others collecting seforim and shaimos. At the end of the day, they were all covered in mud, but exhilarated by the performing the “greatest chesed act” of their lives. Being an ardent fan of Mordechai ben David, Ari is especially thrilled to have seen him in Sea Gate. “He’s using his celebrity status,” Ari remarks, “to bring attention to this. He’s not a prima donna.”
Estie lives in Sea Gate and says her community is still reeling. “People don’t realize the degree of devastation,” she remarks. “We’re all still three feet under. This must be the ninth time we pumped our home and the water keeps coming back. The odor is horrific and the mold is seeping into all the bedrooms.” She says that people keep asking what is needed to bring the community back on its feet, and it is greatly appreciated. But, she adds, “We are not even up to beds, refrigerators or appliances. We are hoping right now just for gas, electric and hot water.”
Once the cleanup operation ends, the next step is to begin demolition. Ari says the sheetrock in the homes of Sea Gate “is falling off like chicken off the bone” and needs to be pulled off the walls. Plumbers and electricians will need to be hired. According to Ari, his community’s response to the call was simply an expression of “imo anochi b’tzorah”.
About two hundred families live in the close knit community of Oceanside, and they were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. Rabbi Jonathan Muskat of the Young Israel of Oceanside says the most devastating part of the entire drama is that three sifrei torah of their shul were damaged. “That”, he said, “was a very big hit.” The sifrei Torah are presently being dried out as best as possible, with the hope that they can eventually be repaired.
The main floor and the basement of the shul were flooded, although the top floor is still functional. Power is finally being restored in the area, but many homes have no working boilers so they can’t move back in just yet.
He sings the praises of the young people of the community who may have moved out of Oceanside but have banded together and raised tens of thousands of dollars. “They grew up here,” he says, “and still feel very connected.”
The mood in Oceanside, according to Rabbi Muskat, is determined. “We want to get back to normal,” he says. “It’s been very difficult for so many people. There’s been frustration as far as how long it’s taking. We’re going to have to adapt the shul and manage without the downstairs for a while. But Jews rebuild. That’s what we do.”
According to Rabbi Muskat, when you learn to cope with the original devastation you just grow stronger. “Hakodosh Boruch Hu gives everyone nisyonos,” he says. “Now we’re being tested to work on our chesed and our emunah.” He reflects on the fact that “these events can either break people or bring them closer. Hopefully we will pass the test.”
Far Rockaway/Five Towns
“Boruch Hashem,” says one grateful mother in Lawrence, now that her power is back on. “The kids are dancing and happy to be home.” For those who have lost their lower levels to the flood, it’s not quite that simple. The rebuilding process is just beginning.
Achiezer is spearheading the recovery effort in this area, and they have raised an impressive sum to help people get back on their feet. At this time, each family is being offered two to three thousand dollars to help make ends meet. The greater challenge of fund distribution will be handled by community rabbonim and askonim once the needs are more clearly assessed.
Meanwhile we are told that people are still stressed. “A lot of people don’t have generators, and are still living in different places although seventy five percent is back,” says Rabbi Moshe Bender. He also points out that these past two weeks has been especially difficult for the elderly and sick in the area, many of whom live alone and have limited mobility. Those with special needs are also greatly challenged.
Parnossah is going to be a big issue. Mail delivery has not yet resumed on a regular basis, people can’t get to work, and in some cases their businesses are destroyed. “There are so many ramifications to this,” explains Rabbi Bender. “People lost all their savings.”
And yet, there’s a tremendous effort to remain cheerful against all odds. A Lipa Shmeltzer concert (billed as Lipa And LIPA) helped raise the spirits of the children, as did an ice cream truck that mysteriously appeared on Sunday from Brooklyn offering free ice cream to all the kids. Most important, yeshivos are opening and functioning, although some are in set up in different locations. It represents another small step towards returning to the normal routines that everyone is craving.
Yeshiva of Belle Harbor was flooded so badly that there is actually dirt and debris on the ceiling of the school. According to Rabbi Boaz Tomsky, its Principal, the water rose fifteen feet high. He says that this is one of the only Yeshivas that lost absolutely everything as a result of the flooding. “There’s not even a pen or a piece of paper left,” he says.
With siyata d’shmaya, the Yeshiva found a new location, Yeshiva Eitz Chaim in Brooklyn, and began classes almost immediately. “We found the building on Monday night,” says Rabbi Tomsky. “And started school on Friday. We didn’t have a single book. Everything was destroyed. But what wasn’t ruined was our desire to move on.”
The parent body and the staff mobilized to turn an empty building into a Yeshiva. They borrowed mechitzos from a gemach to create classrooms. Other local Yeshivas generously donated books and desks. Within a matter of days they were up and running. “It was nothing short of a miracle,” Rabbi Tomsky says.
Boruch Hashem, the sifrei Torah of the shul, Ohab Tzedek, were upstairs during the storm and were thus spared. But Rabbi Tomsky encourages everyone to go to Belle Harbor in order to see what a war zone looks like. FEMA representatives are there and police officers are patrolling the area. He says that residents are walking around “like zombies” and that hardly anyone remains there for the night. Those who enter the buildings must wear gloves and a mask. The mask is crucial, he explains, because of the toxic mess.
It will take years for this community to rebuild. Rabbi Tomsky cannot predict how long it will be until the Yeshiva can return to Belle Harbor. Meanwhile they are short hundreds of thousands of dollars. There are no blackboards, no supplies, not even a copy machine for the teachers to use. Individuals are stepping up to the plate. Someone is trying to locate desks for teachers. Another person offers to contribute students’ lockers. “There’s a very long road ahead,” says Rabbi Tomsky. “But I have the kids to think about. We’re open and we’re not closing down.”
Thus has the Yeshiva changed not only its location, but also it’s name. “We are no longer the Yeshiva of Belle Harbor. We are now the Yeshiva of Bitachon, the Yeshiva of Faith.”