Voices from the Storm
As told to Bayla Sheva Brenner
Rabbi Dr. Chaim Wakslak
Rav of the Young Israel of Long Beach, New York
My wife and I decided to stay in Long Beach and not evacuate for Hurricane Sandy. In time, it became progressively clear that this was an extremely serious and unprecedented situation. We looked out the window and saw a river flowing down the street. With each passing moment, the water rose higher and higher. At one point I saw cars, debris and parts of the boardwalk floating in front of my eyes. The house went dark. Then the heat turned off. We stood there looking at each other as this terrible calamity unfolded before our eyes.
By morning the water had receded. I got into the car and drove to the shul, just one block away from the ocean. The sidewalks were covered with sand, and cars were strewn all about; there were broken trees and debris ripped off from buildings. I was terrified of what I would find at the shul. To my great surprise, although there was no light or heat, the shul was untouched. It was absolutely dry.
It was time to daven Shacharit. People started to trickle in. Everyone was shell-shocked. Many people had the doors of their homes pushed in by the force of the water and their homes had extensive flooding. People couldn’t start their cars; the saltwater infiltrated the motors. That Tuesday morning, we stood around in the dark, but we had a minyan. I made a promise to myself that since the shul had been spared any significant damage, we would see to it not to miss a minyan.
We decided to keep the shul open all day in order to establish a central location where people could come and get whatever they needed. It didn’t matter which shul an individual belonged to, or how affiliated he or she was—everyone found a haven in the Young Israel. That sense of community went a long way in dealing with the emotional trauma.
There wasn’t a home in Long Beach that wasn’t affected. The saltwater destroyed everything in its wake—appliances, furniture, carpeting, boilers, heating systems, electrical systems, et cetera. A local kosher butcher store as well as a bagel shop were totally destroyed. Merchants were severely impacted. The numerous large condominiums on the oceanfront were also devastated. The elderly and people with disabilities who live there, many of whom are members of the shul, were left stranded. I sent a team of volunteers to knock on doors and check on people. We found one man shivering and hungry, alone without power or food. We brought him to the shul. The area looked like a war zone. Some people were just wandering around dazed and lost.
My role was to establish a sense of community. Everyone came together—to eat, to daven or to socialize after minyan; people bonded. The Gemara tells us that “tzarus rabim chatzi nechamah.” When you suffer collectively, that in and of itself serves as a consolation.
The first Shabbat we must have had forty to fifty men in shul. There was no light, no heat; we had a generator and three or four lamps. Shabbat provided its own light and it brought warmth and comfort. There was singing and dancing and it lifted everyone’s spirits. We all ate the Friday night meal together in shul; it was like being in Noach’s Ark. The Ark was referred to as a beit midrash of chesed because from morning to night Noach was involved in acts of chesed. On Shabbat day, we had a magnificent kiddush, sponsored by Brooklyn’s Pomegranate supermarket, caterer Michael Schick and the Lawrence supermarket Brach’s. New friendships were forged. It didn’t matter if one usually davened in a different shul or who got an aliyah—all of the things that usually separate us no longer mattered. We were all in this together, supportive of one another. In any community there’s a certain competitiveness between shuls and organizations. All of that fell to the wayside.
On Shabbat afternoon, I thought it would be therapeutic to ask the people present to share their thoughts and feelings. They just kept expressing their gratitude. “Thank you,” they said. “We are so grateful that we have a community; others have to fend for themselves, they have to go to shelters. We are so thankful that not only do we have what we need, we feel like one big family.”
People volunteered; no one looked for payment. One Sunday, over 500 people arrived from Teaneck, West Hempstead, Queens, Manhattan and Boston to help clean out homes. Members of Congregation Orach Chaim of Manhattan arrived with four SUVs filled with supplies. We emptied them out in the dark by candlelight: clothing, blankets, candles, flashlights, batteries, food supplies, paper goods, tablecloths, garbage bags—volunteers had gone to Costco and bought all of these items in bulk. James Lassner, president of Orach Chaim, said, “Rabbi, we want to adopt your shul as a sister congregation; whatever you need—money, anything— just call on us.” He was true to his word.
Orach Chaim’s volunteers came to clean out basements and debris. We then had a dinner in the shul followed by a concert they organized, led by their chazzan. We invited everyone to come relax and enjoy.
Will there be lasting changes? People are still struggling to get their lives in order. But I know that I’ve changed. I’m more sensitive to others’ needs. I saw people who really gave of themselves, despite their own difficulties. There was a cadre of men and women who set up and served meals and cleaned debris for hours. It was something beautiful to behold.
New York-based community activist
The various communities’ chesed organizations were dealing with a crisis that none of them had ever dealt with before. They brought in emergency crews, volunteers to clean out houses and emergency pumps to rid basements of water; they removed sheimos from damaged shuls and did whatever they could to minimize the damage to people’s homes. A Flatbush-based organization filled a twenty-four-foot truck with food and clothing in less than four hours.
This was all done by volunteers and grassroots community organizations that, baruch Hashem, Klal Yisrael is fortunate to have—Achiezer, Chasdei Lev, Hatzalah, local food establishments and many more. We recognized the need and everyone jumped into action. Yeshiva Sh’or Yoshuv in Lawrence, New York, turned into a soup kitchen and a clothing warehouse on par with Burlington Coat Factory. They allowed their yeshivah to become Ground Zero for relief services.
Borough Park Shomrim set up a temporary command center in Seagate—a trailer with a massive nine-thousand-pound generator that ran 24/7. It became a place to organize the food donations, the volunteers and the emergency services in a community that was hit very hard. All of the homes suffered substantial damage to the basements, which meant they lacked hot water, heat, boilers and electricity.
Seagate, which is a gated community, has no stores in the local area. Because so many people lost cars, they had no way to leave the community and purchase supplies. The first Shabbos after the storm, those left in Seagate—more than sixty people—had absolutely no food. Volunteers organized themselves and brought food donated from several establishments in Flatbush. They arrived in Seagate before Shabbos and dropped off food.
One Sunday, a massive relief effort took place in Seagate. Some 500 volunteers came, including four busloads from Baltimore and scores of people from across New York—mostly from Flatbush, Queens, Borough Park and Williamsburg—together with Misaskim, who brought electric pumps to pump out homes. We cleaned out 150 homes and shuls; a tractor-trailer filled with sheimos was removed from the Five Towns, Far Rockaway and Seagate.
Community activists and benefactors are working to rebuild the Seagate community. Their goal is to install new water tanks, water heaters, boilers and electric panels into all of the homes.
In my twenty years as a Hatzalah member, I’ve seen a lot. But I’ve never seen such unity in my entire career. People were thinking out-of-the-box for ways to help each other. I know someone who rented a cholov Yisrael ice-cream truck and drove around the streets of Far Rockaway just to make the kids happy. Another individual showed up at Sh’or Yoshuv on a cold Sunday night while there were still no lights in the area. He opened the trunk of his car, took out a gigantic urn with hot water and a cooler with milk, and began offering people free coffee. That’s someone stepping up.
Groups of people came to Seagate—hundreds—to help clean up. They didn’t know any of these people; it just didn’t matter.
Resident of Seagate
Our home is right on the bay. We’ve had many hurricanes over the years, but we never had any real problems. So when they predicted that Sandy would be one of the worst storms ever, we took it with a grain of salt.
At about 8:00 pm, we looked out the window and saw the streets filling up with water. We knew it wasn’t rainwater; there was hardly any rain.
Seagate is surrounded on three sides by water—the bay on the west, the ocean on the south and on the north, and there’s a canal running toward the end of Seagate. The water was coming in from all three sides, quickly filling up the streets. Once the street had about three feet of water, I began getting nervous. The first level of the house, where we were staying, is about four feet above street level. I didn’t think the water would rise any higher. Then suddenly we heard an explosion. The front and back doors to the basement came crashing in; the pressure was too much for the doors to withstand—it tore them off their hinges. We heard water gushing in.
The heat went off; the electricity went off; the hot water went off—we were in pitch darkness. We slept that night on the upper floor. In the morning we looked out the window; outside was a disaster. There was still at least a foot-and-a-half of water in the street. Cars had been moved hundreds of feet from their parking spaces, trees were down, roads were impassable and we didn’t have any working vehicles. We stayed in the house without heat, hot water and electricity for another two days. On Wednesday evening, when the roads were passable, my son who lives in Flatbush picked us up with a four-wheel drive.
The first few days there was looting and then the Borough Park Shomrim came in and set up a command center. The rebuilding is just beginning. The families who can’t afford new heating and electrical systems remain homeless and are staying in other people’s homes.
We formed a vaad and committed ourselves to raise enough money to take care of everyone in the community who needs help. Other benefactors arranged for professionals to assess all of the homes in Seagate before they begin renovations and treat basements for mold—a costly project. They also are providing free washers and dryers, including the cost of hooking them up, to anyone who needs it.
People are still dejected, no question about it. Some of those with smaller homes don’t have enough room to live in; they need their basements for living quarters. Right now, Seagate is more vulnerable to destruction. On Atlantic Avenue, which faces the ocean, most of the bulkheads (barriers) were ripped apart. If your home is on the level of the ocean and there is no bulkhead, every time the tide rises you’re going to have water coming in. Only the few bulkheads made of steel survived. The others, made of wood or concrete, are gone.
Rabbi Aryeh Zev Ginzberg
Rav of Chofetz Chaim Torah Center, Cedarhurst, New York
I was in Israel for a family simchah when my phone rang. It was one of the ba’alei batim from the shul. I couldn’t understand why he would be calling me at that hour (it was 3:00 am in the States). On the other end of the line was a person who is usually in control; he was absolutely hysterical.
He told me he just watched his home get destroyed. Five feet of water came into his basement, which had held a business. He ran outside to get his cars and saw them wash away.
No one expected this kind of devastation.
Calls, e-mails and texts kept pouring in. I spent the next sixteen hours on the phone and computer trying to ensure that those who were unaffected opened their homes to those who were displaced. One family in our shul hosted fifty people over Shabbos; another had several families living in their home—thirteen children and seven adults. They slept in the living room, den—wherever there was available space.
The next morning in shul, a Holocaust survivor who had made aliyah a few years earlier told me he had lived in Borough Park his entire life. When he made aliyah, his children warned him that living in Israel wasn’t safe, with the terrorism, the dangers of Iran and the potential for war. They constantly urged him and his wife to return to the States. He said he has a daughter who lives in Seagate, a son in Long Beach and another son in Lawrence. All of them were now homeless.
I was getting call after call from people asking what the sages in Israel were saying about the hurricane. I spoke with Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman. (His gabbai told me that the rav had received 200 phone calls in an hour from people all over asking for eitzos, advice.) The rav told me, “Tell them that Hashem is trying to get their attention.” We live our lives as Orthodox Jews and believe in Hashem, but at the end of the day, we think we control our lives.
We don’t have prophets today to tell us why things happen. We can’t point a finger and say, “this is why.” What we needed to do was gather all our resources, be united, and make sure we were there to give to those who were in need. The focus needed to be on recovery, healing and making sure everyone had what they needed.
Sh’or Yoshuv’s gym became a clothing drop-off center. A clothing company donated 2,000 winter coats for men; another dropped off 300 pairs of women’s shoes. There were more clothes on racks there than at a Macy’s store.
A manufacturer dropped off a few hundred cases of diapers. While they were unloading, another truck showed up from Rochester, New York, with supplies, clothes and food. Once that truck left, another one arrived from Boston; still another from Chicago. Food distribution was organized at the yeshivah and hot meals were provided three times a day. On Friday afternoon, huge boxes with challos, wine, fish and chicken showed up at the yeshivah. Gourmet Glatt, a supermarket in the Five Towns, donated hundreds of portions of chicken. I saw some of the wealthiest, most prominent people in the community wearing aprons and serving food. The chesed that was going on was unreal.
On Sunday, over 100 volunteers from Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Queens arrived wearing overalls, face masks and gloves and went into homes to clean out basements. One of the yeshivah boys told me that twenty boys came back to Queens with filth and mud all over their clothes. They stopped off at a local shul to daven Maariv. One of them went over to the rav and said, “We are so dirty and are not dressed properly for shul; would you mind if we set up a minyan amongst ourselves in the hall?”
The rav replied, “You boys should come into shul and sit in the mizrach vant, in the front; people who went out to help fellow Jews and did backbreaking work—you’re not an embarrassment; you’re a pride and joy.”
Dr. Hylton Lightman
Pediatrician in the Five Towns and Far Rockaway
Although my office and home are in Zone A, which had mandatory evacuation, I decided to stay. Anticipating the medical needs in the community, I was concerned and wanted to work with Hatzalah to make sure our community was medically sound. Also, we have some elderly neighbors who were relying on us.
Before the storm, my wife and I took out the office’s computer server and we placed it, together with our vaccine inventory which requires refrigeration, in a location with an industrial-strength generator. We have been using EMR (electronic medical records) since 1997; it stores invaluable and irreplaceable information about people’s lives. I also brought basic medical supplies to our home. When we returned Tuesday morning after the storm, we were shocked to see that the water line outside the entrance was above the doorknob. Exploring the office, we found that the flood water, together with sewage, had risen to over five feet in the office before receding, destroying all medical equipment, including exam tables, cabinets and the remaining medical supplies. I opened a drawer about two feet off the ground and, to my amazement, water and sewage poured out. The office had to be totally gutted.
Devastation was ubiquitous throughout Far Rockaway and the Five Towns—homes destroyed, cars totaled, all compounded by no heat or electricity for two weeks. People did not know how or where to begin picking up the pieces and moving on. Yet there were plenty of medical needs and they needed to be tended to. Immediately, I began seeing patients in my home. My children held candles and flashlights until a generator was secured. My kids also made sure that every child left our home with a lollipop.
We were searching for temporary office space while our office was being rebuilt when Chaim Leibtag, president of the White Shul, Congregation Kneseth Israel, an OU shul in Far Rockaway, graciously offered us space in the shul. Our IT people wired the room so we could install telephone wires and computers. We set up cubicles, including five for examining patients, one for a lab and another for a reception area. Within seventy–two hours of Mr. Leibtag’s offer, we were fully operational. Having trained and practiced medicine in South Africa, including serving two years in the South African Army, I’ve worked under less-than-ideal circumstances: I performed appendectomies in huts and delivered babies in the African bush. So, for me, this was a vast improvement. Interestingly, word spread and two major New York metropolitan area teaching hospitals have done site visits to learn from us how to plan for future disasters.
Since Hurricane Sandy passed through, I’m seeing patients with unusual coughs and rashes. People of all ages were exposed to a plethora of toxic fumes and mold. In addition to the mold exposure and other airborne germs, there are psychological issues. Upheaval can wear down one’s immune system. The children were out of school, had no routine and no consistency. Some children continue to suffer from nightmares and anxiety and talk about death and dying.
Hashem sent a disaster that we did not choose. However, we chose our reactions and there were many “high” moments due to Sandy, specifically, the achdus of Klal Yisrael. Jews from all over the world banded together to help Far Rockaway, the Five Towns, Belle Harbor, Long Beach, Oceanside, Seagate and other communities affected by the storm. Is there any greater nachas for HaKodosh Baruch Hu than to see His children as one big family?
Wife of Dr. Hylton Lightman
My alma mater, the Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts, sent out an e-mail to all alumni that a busload of Maimonides high school students would be traveling to an area ravaged by Sandy to help with the storm cleanup. I called the school and offered to host the students for dinner. Even with a second loss of power that erev Shabbos, I was nonetheless determined to feed these kids who cared enough to leave their comfortable homes and travel via bus over four hours each way to help storm victims in Long Beach. A call to Carlos & Gabby’s, a restaurant in Cedarhurst, and we were ready.
While the teens ate dinner in my home, I told them, “When you go away to college and go out into the ‘real’ world, you will be exposed to many challenges. Yet always remember today and that what you’ve done connects you to a mesorah that dates back to Har Sinai, which has continued, uninterrupted, despite countless vicissitudes. Take pride in being Jewish! Remember what we say every Shabbos at Minchah and in Mussaf on Yom Kippur: ‘Mi kiamcha Yisrael?’ You are part of the Jewish brotherhood—whereby we all help each other and do for one another. The hallmark of a Jew is to always be involved in chesed and that’s what you’ve done today. Walk as proud Jews at all times.”
I think these kids saw that they are tethered to something so beautiful and timeless and so much greater than they ever realized.
Rabbi Eliezer Feuer
Rav of Young Israel of Wavecrest and Bayswater
Before the storm, we cleaned our gutters, made sure our sump pumps were working and bought a few days’ supply of food. By 6:00 on Monday night, it started getting nasty outside; trees were falling. By 8:00, the transformers were popping. Then everything went dark. My heroic neighbor ran out in the middle of the storm and got a generator so my family was able to have a little light. We pulled an extension cord for another neighbor. The high tide came in around 8:30. My neighbor ran over to tell me that the Agudath Israel of Bayswater was totally submerged in water.
When things calmed down, I went with one of my ba’alei batim to survey the damage. There was no power. We couldn’t get through most streets because the water was so deep. Blocks of Bayswater were now just part of the bay. In many of the basement apartments, the waterline reached the mezuzot.
Everybody mobilized; we had more than seventy-five volunteers. We were concerned about looting, so we shut down all of Bayswater and Far Rockaway. You couldn’t go a block without seeing two men in a car with amber lights. Once we had round-the-clock security in order, we began the relief effort. We purchased pumps and generators and began pumping people’s basements.
My shul turned into a command center with a shelter on the third floor. Half of our main sanctuary functioned as a clothing drop-off and the other half as a dining room. Our kitchen served three meals a day from eight in the morning until two in the morning—thousands of meals a day. Some people were in charge of the kitchen, others were part of the cleaning crew and still others functioned as waiters. We organized concerts and arranged for speakers to give chizuk. We hooked up Wi-Fi for people who needed it for work. We ran a veritable day camp, with children’s programs and arts and crafts. A busload of volunteers from Baltimore arrived to organize a community-wide carnival. The message was clear: this shul is your home; move in. You’ll get food, warmth, music and camaraderie. We’re going to come out of this better and stronger.
We got the White Shul in Far Rockaway running with generators to create a similar situation there. It was a big Kiddush Hashem. Non-Jews were thanking us; some of their neighbors were waiting on line for hours for a bottle of water while we were serving them gourmet meals.
We heard that Belle Harbor was totally destroyed. The new rav of a shul there, Ohab Zedek, didn’t know where to turn. We drove over with pumps and brought three sifrei Torah up from the basement; they were ruined. Together with volunteers from Flatbush, we saved the other sifrei Torah and found pairs of tefillin. We pumped out water from the shul and from more than 150 homes in Belle Harbor.
Gasoline was scarce so we asked for volunteers to bring gas from Connecticut and New Jersey. People from Lakewood sent thousands of gallons of gasoline. Volunteers brought in drums with pumps; we had a mini gas station here.
Volunteers from Kiryas Joel in Monroe, New York, drove in with a fire truck to assess the situation and hooked up generators. The RV command center from Monroe came and stayed for over a week. The rebbe of New Square also sent a team of electricians with generators; they worked together with the Satmar volunteers to hook up generator after generator and fill each with gasoline.
We found a treasure of unity. The Satmar, Lubavitch, Skver, Lakewood, Monsey, Teaneck, Modern Orthodox, Yeshivish and Chassidic communities—Jews from across the spectrum—put aside their differences and worked together in harmony. It was like the Chashmonaim during the time of Chanukah—a few people stood up against the ferocious storm called Sandy and said we’re going to rebuild together. It was a nisayon, and I think we passed with flying colors.
Ultimately, our power is our unity. It’s not about alarm systems or bulkheads—the waters washed right through them. We realized who we truly are. Everyone was loving and helping one another; it was so fantastic. I believe it is my responsibility to tell people this story, to preserve the lesson we learned from this hurricane. Megillat Esther was written down so that the story would be remembered forever. I want to write Megillat Sandy.
Resident of Bayswater
My house and my block were unaffected by Sandy; I was fortunate. I can’t say the same for my friends.
I opened a shelter for women and children in my boss’s Shabbos home in Bayswater, which was connected to a shul’s generator. My boss and his wife opened up their home to total strangers—an altruistic act of kindness—and asked me to be the “screener.” About thirty very grateful women stayed at the shelter. One had a newborn and her apartment was freezing. One of the women had been living in her car with her family and had nowhere to go.
Their husbands stayed at the Young Israel, which had turned into a command center serving about 1,000 people per day. At the shul, lawyers and doctors were sweeping floors and waiting tables; it was amazing to see. A lot of people couldn’t go to work because of the gas shortage, so they came to volunteer. Everyone found a job to do.
The atmosphere was so pumped up and charged with positivity—we were all working together. Every night volunteers from Williamsburg came to the command center with kugels and other hot dishes. The first morning they came, they saw the shul kitchen was empty; we were just starting to get our act together to open a soup kitchen. They started chopping vegetables and made soup. More volunteers from Williamsburg came with breakfast supplies. Nobody asked them to do this. They just came, saw what was needed and took care of it.
Every morning fresh bread arrived from a bakery, donated. A couple from Borough Park drove in with both of their cars laden with new pillows, blankets and towels. We received paper goods, canned goods, noodles, oil and lots of cleaning supplies from someone in Monsey. Another couple took it upon themselves to go to every home, assess the damage and recruit volunteers to help clean the debris.
The olam must know about the goodness and kindness of our people. I have never been so touched by humanity as I was then, and continue to be. If it takes a hurricane, then so be it; may we never be tested again.
Everyone who possibly could rolled up his or her sleeves and helped in some way—I saw it all. A little girl from Stamford, Connecticut, emptied her piggy bank containing all her savings for a new iPod and insisted that her money go to Bayswater’s relief fund after she heard her rabbi speak about it in shul. Her mother drove three hours each way to present her little girl’s donation.
I went to Belle Harbor and Breezy Point with my mother, who was visiting from Australia, to see the aftermath of Sandy. Two weeks after Sandy, people’s cars were mangled, their belongings and everything they held dear were curbside. Belle Harbor, as much as it was destroyed, still had people living there. Breezy Point, however, was empty. National Guard soldiers were everywhere and they worked with volunteers to clean up the silent devastation.
Driving down the beach of the mile-long peninsula, we saw unspeakable wreckage; it was too much to take in, seeing so many people’s belongings washed away. There was a couple walking by. I asked them how they were doing and the woman grew teary. “That’s my house,” she said, and pointed to a roof on the sand—just a roof. She said she came to see what the restoration center was giving out today; they were in short supply of diapers and wipes and baby things. She was carrying a bag with two diapers and a few wipes in a Ziploc bag. “That’s what they gave you?” I asked her, incredulous. “They have to limit the amount they give out; everyone needs things,” she replied.
It was my turn to tear up. Two diapers? I told her I have a stockpile of diapers in my house for post-hurricane survivors and gave her my address so that she could come pick up a box of diapers, wipes, formula and baby food. The look in her eyes said so much.
When she came, I showed her the Bayswater command center: the kitchen that was open 24/7 for everyone, what was left of the clothing gemach and the dining room that fed thousands every day, and of course, my women’s shelter/five-star hotel. We went to Sh’or Yoshuv to pick up some food and she was amazed at the chesed of our community. People walked out with boxes of diapers, wipes, shampoos, soaps, new and gently-used clothing, sheets and blankets—all free for the taking with a kind word of encouragement from the volunteers.
I showed her different postings online of all the new gemachs and offers of warm showers and power-ups to complete strangers; the list of kind acts is endless.
How do we make this chesed and achdus last? How can Klal Yisrael be renowned for its kindness in good times as well? Let’s start by being respectful to each other. Let people pass when you’re driving; show some common courtesy. Let’s smile at each other more; show gratitude. Say more “pleases” and “thank yous.” It’s all so important.
Rabbi Jonathan Ackerman
Associate regional director of New York NCSY
After the hurricane, the entire NCSY staff, along with our team leaders, advisors and regional board teens, chose different communities to rally around. Teens from Westchester, Long Island and Manhattan traveled to Far Rockaway, Long Island, Oceanside, Long Beach, Seagate and Brooklyn communities. These kids set aside their normal lives to work for others. They brought clothing, boots, flashlights, batteries and toys for the kids. They spent hours schlepping boxes, unloading trucks, doing whatever was needed.
We had our staff working around-the-clock organizing rides for relief efforts; we were trying to keep up with the kids’ desire to help. I drove back and forth multiple times—despite the gas shortage—from Westchester to Long Island, from Long Island to Brooklyn, from Brooklyn back to Westchester. There was a teen from one of our Westchester programs who started coming to NCSY events because her mother forced her to. She was one of the first to say, “Let’s do this!” And she brought her friends.
We had public school kids with little or no Jewish background and kids who were in a Hebrew high school working with Chassidim from Borough Park; I had never seen anything like it.
The kids really rose to the occasion. Members of every single group of teen volunteers said it was the most meaningful thing they had ever done.
These teens saw firsthand hundreds of Jews from all walks of life outfitted with gloves and masks going into strangers’ homes to scrub their basements. I don’t think they realized this existed. It changed their perspective in a way that we could not have with any ordinary NCSY program. They’re now wondering what is it about the Jewish people that no matter what, when the stakes are high, in a time of true need, we are there for one another.
To hear an interview with Rabbi Aryeh Lighstone, regional director of New York NCSY, about the tremendous acts of hospitality, kindness and general heroism following Sandy, go to http://www.ou.org/life/inspiration/hurricane-heroes-aryeh-lightstone-stephen-savitsky/#.USve3KzMOIA.
Sixteen-year-old NCSYer from Teaneck, New Jersey and student at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls
The hurricane was something so powerful, so awe-inspiring and so tragic, I knew I had to do something to help.
I cleaned out someone’s basement in Seagate. I was pawing through someone’s stuff that was now trash, covered in disgusting grime and muck. Everything was off the shelves, piled on the floor, covered in sewerage and water. A man told me he had to throw out his grandfather’s Shas from Europe. It’s so unfortunate; so many memories, pictures, videos—ruined. I tried to treat all of the destroyed possessions with care.
All these people were standing outside talking about their homes and stores; people were trying to accept the damage and move on. [They’d say], “All this pain had to be for a reason; it came from Hashem. We need to clean up and move on.” They were trying to sound brave, but you could sense that if someone said the wrong thing, they would break down.
There’s something about the connection between one Jew and another. People in the community said, “I can’t believe so many came to help me. Go to this person, he needs help, she needs help.” It was really one house after the other. I felt exhausted, but also very fulfilled.
Resident of Woodmere and associate director of the Chai Lifeline Crisis Intervention and Bereavement Department
There were only two blocks in the entire Five Towns that didn’t lose power. Ours was one of them. We saw the chesed that Hashem bestowed upon my family. It wasn’t even a question; of course we welcomed people in.
We had eight families in and out of the house. Some were friends, friends of friends; others came through Achiezer and Chai Lifeline. A family from Far Rockaway lost everything. All my kids relocated to my room; we fit everyone in.
A woman called the twenty-four-hour helpline set up by Chai Lifeline and Achiezer and said, “I have a friend who has no power and her boiler is down. She has cancer and is having major surgery on Tuesday; she has nowhere to go.” I was able to be there for her.
Others came to charge batteries or work from our home. I told the people at Achiezer that I have a wheelchair-accessible guestroom and bathroom and they asked if I would take in a family whose son is in a wheelchair; we put a temporary ramp by our front steps. On Shabbos, we had people from all over—Far Rockaway, Cedarhurst, Lawrence—forty people around our table. It was a tremendous privilege to host these people.
Our shul, Aish Kodesh, was the only shul in the area with power that Shabbos. At the minyan, there were hundreds of people from all the surrounding communities that didn’t have power.
The women staying in our home spoke about how they wanted to come out of this changed people—to grow from it. We started a weekly conference call where we would learn a sefer on middos; we are keeping the special connection we made during this time of crisis.
It was really a family chesed. My younger children realized that they were giving up their rooms because these families didn’t have electricity or heat; the older kids volunteered at Sh’or Yoshuv sorting clothes, serving meals and cleaning out homes. My kids missed a lot of school, but there are certain lessons that can’t be learned in the classroom.
Baltimore-based real estate manager and founder of ChesedFund/Project Ezra, an organization that deals with health and safety in the community
I was in Israel when I heard about the hurricane. I changed my ticket so I could return earlier and help out.
A member of Hatzalah called, saying he was interested in taking some generators from Baltimore to New York. Instead of bringing just a few generators, I thought, Let’s make a large purchase of generators, gas cans, flashlights, batteries, lanterns—everything the communities would need.
Home Depot in Baltimore was suspicious of the fact that we wanted to purchase hundreds of generators; they assumed we would be bringing them to New York to resell. I told them to speak with the attorney general of Maryland who knows me personally and could vouch for me. They contacted the attorney general and realized we had truly come to do a good deed. We ended up bringing 120 generators, 250 gas cans and thousands of batteries, flashlights, sump pumps, trash bags and more. With a caravan of four large rented trucks, one mini truck and my four-wheel drive, we left for New York with more than $150,000 worth of emergency equipment.
Hundreds of people were gathered in the Five Towns to greet us, some with tears in their eyes—they so desperately needed generators. We were proud to be the first major contingent to bring emergency supplies for the community. Over the next number of days, we sent close to a thousand cans of gasoline into the area. At the same time, we were involved in a clothing drive in Baltimore; we had truckloads of clothing to be distributed.
Rabbi Shmuel Silber, rav of Suburban Orthodox Congregation in Baltimore, was instrumental in getting the local shuls on board to launch a major drive to help the Seagate community. Over the next week and a half, we sent six busloads of volunteers to help pump out basements and remove debris from homes.
Then we came up with the idea of making a “Welcome Home” carnival in Bayswater, something for the kids that the parents could also enjoy. Fifty girls from Baltimore’s Bais Yaakov High School and Bnos Yisroel volunteered to help coordinate the carnival. We got food donated for the carnival including hot dogs, cotton candy and popcorn. Two Baltimore companies contributed cases of soda and over a thousand stuffed animals. Close to 2,000 people came. It brought people the kind of joy they hadn’t experienced in weeks.
Resident of Bayswater
The morning after the hurricane, I took a walk with a friend. We looked around at the devastation; it felt unreal. It didn’t seem like our neighborhood. When we passed the Agudah on Bayswater Avenue, we saw that water had reached the ceiling; sefarim were floating. That’s when it hit me: my house was fine, my family was fine, but my neighborhood wasn’t. I had to help.
I went to speak with Rabbi Eliezer Feuer of the Young Israel of Bayswater. I told him that there was going to be a serious shortage of food in the community. He said, “Okay, we’re opening a food pantry. You’re in charge.”
We set up a distribution site in front of the Young Israel. I called a few friends to join me. The JCC of Far Rockaway and the Five Towns delivered all the food in its food pantry to us.
Brach’s supermarket in Lawrence told us to order whatever we needed. Michael Schick, a Brooklyn caterer, brought dinner, which fed about 300 to 400 people. Food just kept showing up, from Williamsburg, Borough Park and Flatbush. There were two young Chassidish guys who dropped off homemade food. I asked them, “Are you going back to Borough Park? Can I give you my laundry to give to my daughter in Brooklyn to wash?” One of them texted me at six the next morning asking what else we needed. I told him we needed Lebens and yogurts and a few other things and he delivered it all. Complete strangers would just show up with truckloads of food. We had peanut butter, bread, eggs, rice, beans and tons of canned goods.
Word got out and people just started coming. By Thursday the week of the hurricane, we had an open-door policy at he Young Israel and we were serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. I got there every day by 6:45 am and people would just show up to help.
Some people from the Upper West Side of Manhattan called and told us they wanted to bring food; they asked what we needed. I faxed a list of items. If I asked for a case of red peppers, they brought five cases—they more than tripled everything. They drove in with a huge truck and started unloading. Another truck pulled up and the driver came out and said, “I heard you need paper goods.” People delivered cases of apple juice, orange juice and milk. An organization brought two thousand cases of water bottles. Volunteers from Masbia, a network of kosher soup kitchens, would show up at 11:00 at night and deliver 700 meals for the next day. Even though we kept putting out so much food each day, more food kept coming in.
While working in the soup kitchen, I heard a lot of sad stories. For so many people the situation was extremely overwhelming. Although many people who lived in unaffected areas were very helpful, they didn’t know what it was like to live like this. For the first few days, I tried to keep people’s spirits up. There was an elderly woman who came to eat with us; she wasn’t from the neighborhood. She was crying, “This is so hard for me; I have anxiety.” I asked her, “Did you ever go to summer camp? This is camp; we are going to make it fun. We’re all going to be together and it’s going to be okay.”
It was an amazing experience to see bochurim from New Square and Kiryas Joel arriving in buses to help. They would take off their beaver hats and black coats and get all dirty, cleaning mold and sewage off walls of basements. They would leave and then another crew would arrive.
Everyone was helping out any way they could. Men who were up all night setting up generators or cleaning out boilers for people would then come in to eat in the morning, their clothes smelling of gasoline.
We have a nineteen-year-old foster child who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Due to some medical issues, he’s on a nebulizer and has a gastric feeding tube. He’s also on a chest compression machine. If he stays in a cold house, he could end up with pneumonia. An electrician in our community showed up with a generator and we had heat. People donated gas so that the house would remain warm.
I had planned a trip to Israel for October thirtieth, which El Al had canceled due to the hurricane. I rescheduled it for later that week. On the way to the airport, I asked my husband, “How could I leave when there is so much that has to be done here?” When I called to reschedule, El Al was about to charge another $300. We explained that we needed to stay to help and the airline decided not to charge me.
For the two Shabbosim following the hurricane, everyone in the community received food. I’m not sure which caterers in Williamsburg, Monroe or Borough Park sent it, but the food was amazing. I was leaving for Israel that Motzaei Shabbos. For Shalosh Seudos, I walked to shul just to be there. The men were singing and then suddenly it hit me—what an awesome experience this has been. I was totally exhausted, having slept four hours a night for two weeks straight. As I walked home, I saw that all the streetlights were on.
When I got on the plane for Israel, I found myself seated next to a secular Jewish woman going to Israel for the first time. She asked about the hurricane. As I was telling her my story, I realized that I was part of a group who just made life happen for so many others. We gave people a home, a place to go. It wasn’t just the food; it was the whole atmosphere. Hashem put us here so that we could emulate Him, to have pleasure from taking care of each other. And that’s what we did.
Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.
About the Photographer:
My name is Yisrael Jerome Bethea.
I use lenses, cameras and film as a medium to connect and speak through images, music and words.
I tell stories. These images are the story of the Jewish people.
My background is acting in film and television, theater, musical theater, voice-overs and motion capture for video games, and I also taught acting. Now I produce and create, putting me on the other side of the camera. I direct, shoot and edit film, promotional videos, fundraising promos and anything that needs to be conveyed beautifully in video or photos.
I was asked to photograph the storm relief efforts in Baltimore, where I live. My family was okay, baruch Hashem. I wasn’t affected, I thought. As I was taking the photos, however, I kept coming back to one spot. Several hours later, as I was reviewing the photos, I noticed the spot and angle I kept returning to: “Baby Supplies.” Something about that sign was really getting to me. I realized that this was real. There are babies who were severely affected by the storm. If these were my children, what would I do? What would I hope someone would do for me and my children?
The next day, in tears, I, like so many others, set out to do something for the victims with my strength and ability—my lenses. The photos in this section were meant to inspire and encourage you to do what you can, with your own abilities, whether that be tefillah, time or money. I look forward to meeting you on the frontlines of this endeavor, one way or another.