Yehuda Friedman and I spent the day today visiting the communities of Belle Harbor, Merrick and Atlantic Beach.
We began at Congregation Ohab Zedek in Belle Harbor, a beautiful neighborhood in Queens, between the ocean and the bay. The water from the ocean met the water from the bay and swept through the entire community. There is sand everywhere, and every home suffered damage to their basement and first floor. Homeowners are working diligently to repair their homes, and hope to be able to return in the next 2-3 months.
The shul is a beautiful building, and its lower level, housing its daily chapel, its beit midrash was completely destroyed. There is a strong smell of oil permeating the shul. The main sanctuary suffered minor water damage, the carpeting has been pulled out, but it is basically fine. The custodian lived in a house attached to the shul, which was completely flooded.
There is a new young Rabbi, Zvi Selengut, who began in August, and he told us the Beit Midrash was just recently renovated and many new Seforim were bought, including a new Shas. All of the seforim and siddurim on the lower level were destroyed. The Torahs were on the first floor, and they are fine, and they have been moved to Brooklyn for safekeeping.
The shul has flood insurance which will cover $200,000 in damage. The President of the shul estimates that it will cost $1 million to replace the electrical, heating, air conditioning units and to refurnish the lower level. They estimate it will take a year to 15 months until the Shul building can be occupied again. They are trying to see how much the insurance will cover, and they will fundraise the rest. They asked for OU assistance in setting up a fundraising campaign, when they are ready.
They requested $10,000 from the OU to set up trailers in the shul parking lot, so the shul can continue to function until the building is repaired, once the residents return. This is the cost for setting up the trailers, the shul will pay the monthly rental cost and electricity. I told them, that we have set aside money for facility usage, and we will provide them the funding for that use.
They are very grateful to the OU for their support during this difficult time.
Following our visit to Belle Harbor, we travelled to Merrick, Long Island to visit Rabbi Ira Ebbin of Congregation Ohav Shalom. The shul did not suffer any damage, and is being used by the JCC for their day care at the current time. The shul served as a gathering place for the community, because it was one of the few places with power, and no damage. Many homes have been damaged, and people are suffering greatly. Rabbi Ebbin said that many of his congregants are in shock, and are uncomfortable asking for help, even though they are in need of basic necessities. He is very grateful for the OU funding for his discretionary funding. He described one congregant, a single mother who was housing her brother and her parents, she didn’t have flood insurance, and she needs housing, clothing etc. Rabbi Ebbin thanked us for visiting his community, he said that Merrick is considered a forgotten community, and he was pleased that we remembered them. He said it provided him Chizuk, as he deals with getting his own home back together, and cares for his congregants.
Following that we drove to Atlantic Beach. We have not been able to get in touch with the Rabbi, so we decided to try to visit the shul. Atlantic Beach was completely devastated by the storm. We did not see the Rabbi or the Executive Director in the shul but there was a clean up crew working. Outside, Siddurim that appear OK are covered in a tarp in the shul’s Sukkah. The shul’s kitchen and chairs from its social hall are stacked high on the side of the building. Inside, we saw Posul Sifrei Torah water damaged, and many waterlogged seforim. The entrance to the main shul was locked, but it appears, from all of the furniture outside that there was a lot of damage to the shul.
As this being my second visit to storm ravaged areas, I am in awe of the breadth and depth of destruction that the water brought. As we drove from one community to another, we saw boats in the middle of streets, piles of household debris, and condemned buildings. The path of destruction in Queens, Brooklyn and Long Island alone goes on for miles, and we know there was similar damage in Staten Island and the Jersey shore.
We are planning to visit Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn on Thursday, and you are welcome to join us.
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Judah Isaacs is Director of the OU’s Community Engagement department.