A Lifeline in the Storm: OU Provides Relief to Communities Devastated by Sandy

by | in Inside the OU

Within hours of Sandy’s devastation, the OU sprung into action. On its web site, the OU launched the OU Hurricane Relief Fund, giving the greater community an opportunity to reach out and assist those struggling to come to terms with their losses and rebuild their lives.

The response was overwhelming.

“Funds were streaming in from 190 cities across North America,” says Emanuel Adler, chairman of the OU Synagogue Services Commission. “Thus far, we’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. In times of crisis our role is to organize and provide the needed financial, as well as moral, support,” says Mr. Adler who also chaired the OU Hurricane Relief Fund.

OU lay leaders and staff members made multiple trips to the hardest-hit communities, including Seagate and Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn, Belle Harbor in the Rockaways and Long Beach, the Five Towns, Atlantic Beach and Lido Beach on Long Island. They came to demonstrate the heartfelt concern behind each generous check.

“We were all in shock,” says Rabbi Judah Isaacs, OU director of community engagement. “I don’t think anyone imagined that water could do such damage. I saw the piles of garbage, which really were people’s lives. Their sofas, their cribs, all of their possessions were out on the street. I said to those in the besieged communities, ‘We’re here for the long term.’” Gerald Schreck, OU national vice president and chairman of its Communications Commission, visited the stricken enclave of Seagate with a significant OU Hurricane Fund check in hand. Meeting with the Seagate Vaad, comprised mostly of Satmar representatives, Mr. Schreck said, “The OU tent got a bit wider today.”

Mr. Adler reports that amid the wreckage, the feeling of kol Yisrael areivim zeh la zeh was pervasive, lifting spirits in community after community.

“I didn’t ask the OU what it could offer—the OU called us,” says Rabbi Eytan Feiner of Kneseth Israel, known as the White Shul, an OU shul in Far Rockaway. “They said, ‘Tell us what you are experiencing; what are your ba’alei batim enduring? How can we help?’ The OU is much more than an organization; it’s made up of remarkable individuals.”

According to Rabbi Feiner, the fund plays a pivotal role for those who are ineligible to receive grants from FEMA. “A congregant who had to close down his office due to the destruction came to see me. He wasn’t able to get money from other resources. The family lives from day to day. They were so grateful for the Hurricane Fund’s help. I said, ‘Don’t thank me; thank the OU.’”

The OU also found itself fostering achdut in unexpected ways.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, rav of Kehilath Israel Congregation in Overland Park, Kansas, realized he could make excellent use of his synagogue’s storehouse of fifteen sifrei Torah. With the aim of helping other synagogues that had lost their Torah scrolls to the raging waters of Sandy, he turned to the OU to help find a shul that needed a Torah, as one community’s gift to another.

Arrangements were made to donate the Torah to Congregation Ahavas Yisrael in Cedarhurst, New York. Rabbi Yanklowitz and his wife, Shoshana, personally delivered the Torah to its new home. The fact that neither of the two shuls were OU congregations didn’t affect the shidduch. “They are doing good work,” says OU President Dr. Simcha Katz. “That’s all that matters.”

relief fund

Gerald M. Schreck, OU national vice president, presenting a check from the OU’s Hurricane Relief Fund to the Seagate community. From left: The entertainer and Seagate resident Mordechai Ben David; Yanky Elefant; Gerald Schreck; Dayan Pinchas Meisels and J.B. Walhandler. Photo: Hillel Engel

The OU and UJA-Federation of New York provided funding for a trailer to be used by Congregation Ohab Zedek of Belle Harbor while its building is being repaired. In addition, the shul received a cash grant from the OU Hurricane Relief Fund to help with other expenses.

Currently, federal law is unclear about whether the fourteen synagogues that were severely impacted by Sandy are entitled to disaster relief FEMA grants equal to other impacted nonprofits. The OU’s Institute for Public Affairs is working with officials at the White House, the Department of Homeland Security (under which FEMA operates) and Congress to clarify the status of houses of worship for such aid. In the meantime, the OU Hurricane Relief Fund has helped in the repairing of Hurricane-affected shuls and community mikvaot.

“We have families still living in other people’s homes,” says Rabbi Ira Ebbin, rav of Congregation Ohav Sholom in Merrick, New York. “The OU committed to help in any way it could. Families come to me in desperation and I can say, ‘Here’s several thousand dollars.’ In the sense of the community realizing how much we need each other and how we come through for each other, this is our finest hour.”

To contribute to the OU Hurricane Relief Fund, please visit www.ou.org/sandy or call 212.613.8336.

Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.

To hear an interview with Judah Isaacs, Director of Community Engagement at the Orthodox Union, about the funds raised for victims of Sandy and what’s been achieved, go to http://www.ou.org/life/inspiration/rebuilding-lives-sandy-victims-judah-isaacs-stephen-savitsky/#.USvd3KzMOIA.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2013.

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