When Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast some months ago, destroying many neighborhoods in its path, quite a few with large frum populations, I could not help but remember Hurricane Connie, which struck New York in the summer of 1955.
It was August, and my family and I were spending the summer on Beach 25th Street in the Rockaways. In those days, Rockaway Beach, dotted with hundreds of quaint, affordable bungalows, was a popular summer destination for Jewish families. My bar mitzvah was to take place on Shabbos, and while we had heard about an impending hurricane, we didn’t think much of it. I was eagerly anticipating my bar mitzvah; I had spent the year diligently preparing. I knew how to chant (lein) Parashas Re’eh—all 126 pesukim. My grandfather and a handful of friends and relatives had come to the Rockaways for the bar mitzvah, which was supposed to take place at the Hebrew Institute of Long Island, affectionately known as HILI, on Seagirt Boulevard. Unfortunately, that Friday night Hurricane Connie unleashed her wrath on New York, dumping more than twelve inches of rain in certain parts of the city. Meanwhile, the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay met, flooding the streets so that no one could make it to HILI, which was a block or two away from the ocean.
Having prepared all year for my big day, I was crushed. I would not be able to lein. As the water receded, I did manage to make it to shul later in the day and had an aliyah for Minchah, but it took me a long time to get over my deep disappointment over not being able to lein. Interestingly enough, however, two years later, the Young Israel of Bayswater officially opened its doors on Parashas Re’eh. I attended the new minyan, located in a converted storefront near Beach 25th Street, and I leined the parashah.
All these memories welled up inside me as I read this issue’s cover story on Hurricane Sandy. In this issue, we don’t focus on Sandy’s devastation, but rather on the extraordinary responses of ordinary people—a doctor from Far Rockaway who refused to evacuate and leave his patients, a woman who ran a veritable five-star hotel/shelter in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, a group of volunteers from Baltimore who brought more than $150,000 worth of emergency equipment to those in the Five Towns and other communities who were desperate for generators.
While the Young Israel of Bayswater is no longer on Beach 25th Street (it is now on Healy Avenue), the shul was one of the many wonderful institutions and communal organizations that served as havens for hurricane refugees, offering light, warmth, food, clothing and, above all, friendship, to those shattered and displaced during those initial chaotic days after the hurricane.
As I served on the Orthodox Union’s Hurricane Relief Committee, I personally witnessed much of the wreckage in Seagate and elsewhere. But time and again, what impressed me was not the extreme destruction, but rather the extreme chesed. There are so many heroes in the saga of Sandy, so much altruism, so much kindness. Achdus is the thread that runs throughout these amazing stories of giving and caring.
Just as I ultimately had the zechus of leining my bar mitzvah parashah, even if it was two years late, may Hashem allow the hurricane victims to experience a complete recovery—emotionally, physically and financially—in the near future. I invite you to read these uplifting stories, which remind us all of the true strength and kochos of Klal Yisrael.
Wishing everyone a chag kasher v’sameach.