Some years ago, in that fondly remembered time when major hurricanes hit New York about as often as total eclipses of the sun, I attended a wedding at Manhattan Beach Jewish Center in the south of Brooklyn, a block or so from Sheepshead Bay and just north of the Atlantic Ocean. Brighton Beach and Coney Island are not far away on the Belt Parkway which runs close by the synagogue. It was a wonderful wedding, in part because of the plans of the families, but also because of the beauty of the catering hall and the main sanctuary, where the chuppah was held. I’ve never forgotten it. And so it was with great sadness that I visited Manhattan Beach Jewish Center with my OU colleagues late last week and saw what the catering hall looked like after Hurricane Sandy had filled it with five feet of water.
Where once the smorgasboard delighted the appetite, the tables were heaped with course after course during the meal, the shiny floor reverberated to simcha dancing, and the lounges were comfortable places to sit on the couches and relax, there is now only ruin, with the furniture overturned, the carpets ripped up, the brightly lit ballroom sitting in cold and darkness. (The sanctuary was not flooded, for reasons that will be explained below.) A crew of workmen was doing a cleanup, and a huge, mold-removing trailer from Slay’s Restoration was parked in front, with another in a parking lot across the street. I joined Rabbi Judah Isaacs, the OU Director of Community Engagement, and his Karasick Synagogue Services staff, Yehuda Friedman and Penny Pazornick. Rabbi Isaacs, Yehuda, Penny, OU President Dr. Simcha Katz, Chairman of the Board Stephen J. Savitsky and others, have been making a mournful tour of OU member synagogues devastated by the hurricane, to assess their needs and to bring them immediate assistance from the Orthodox Union.
The help is coming from the OU Hurricane Fund, established following Sandy, just as another hurricane fund was established after Katrina, to provide aid and succor to affected synagogues and people. Of course, in the New York, New Jersey area, there are many more shuls than in New Orleans and a much larger Jewish community. The Sandy Fund is unique in that the proceeds will go to the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund at the affected shuls, under the very correct premise that who knows better than the rabbi what the needs are in the community (both the shul community and the greater community beyond) and how to prioritize them. The money will be given as outright grants, and as loans to be repaid if the recipients of the funds are reimbursed by insurance and/or FEMA. Rabbi Isaacs explained to Rabbi Yehoshua Zelikovitz of MBJC that the OU is dispersing money now for immediate needs, and later, for long-term rebuilding. Manhattan Beach Jewish Center, founded in 1922, is the heart of the Orthodox community in what has always been an upscale Jewish area. Housing at present, the rabbi informs us, sells from between $1 million and $3 million; many of the homes are currently being purchased by Russian Jews moving over one community from Brighton Beach. One of the three Shabbat minyamin at the shul is a Russian minyan, the rabbi says. The synagogue is housed in an impressive seven-story building, which besides the shul and catering hall, includes the Zvi Dov Roth Rambam Yeshiva elementary and high school divisions; a large gymnasium, whose floor the rabbi compared to Madison Square Garden; a JASA senior center; after-school programs and summer camp. The rabbi told us that on a typical weekday, 1,000 people use the building. Across the street is the Mesivta and Bais Medrash of Manhattan Beach, whose students come from far and wide. Rabbi Zelikovitz is Rosh Yeshiva. A noted Talmud scholar, Rabbi Zelikovitz received semicha from Mir Jerusalem and BMG Lakewood; his grandfather, Rabbi Dr. Samson Raphael Weiss, was OU Executive Vice President from 1956-1972. Seven years ago, Rabbi Zelikovitz was asked to fill in temporarily as Mara D’Asra of the synagogue in addition to his Mesivta position, where he had been already been serving seven years. With a smile, he told his OU guests that the temporary position became permanent. With the shul uninhabitable, services are being conducted at the Mesivta – at least until this coming Shabbat. (At the time of this writing, the decision had not yet been made.) It is the once pristine location near two bodies of water that spelled big trouble for MBJC. The storm surge brought water from the Atlantic Ocean onto Sheepshead Bay, where in better times, fishing boats leave at the crack of dawn for the sea. Using the same principle that Archimedes discovered in his bathtub, the water from the Ocean forced the water from the Bay to overflow, creating a double whammy, flooding the neighborhood and the synagogue.
When we got there, the synagogue had just finished the week-long task of pumping more than 300,000 gallons of water and oil from the basement and boiler room. The water was carted away by a parade of 140 tanker trucks in a job which cost $350,000. “It’s daunting here,” said Executive Director Allen Litman, who led our tour, along with the rabbi. Mr. Litman expressed his gratitude to Assembly Steven Cymbrowitz, who interceded with Governor Andrew Cuomo for the state to pick up that tab. Even with help from New York State, the cost of restoring the building will be about $1 million, of which only $150,000 will be covered by insurance, Mr. Litman said. The first and second floors still have to be decontaminated at a cost of $561,000. After our visit, synagogue leadership met with FEMA to discuss possible financial assistance. A major source of income to the shul was lost when the caterer went out of business. To maintain membership, the synagogue had plans to build 28 moderately priced residential units on synagogue property to help attract young families to the community and shul, but that project has been washed away, with the money put aside for rebuilding.
The synagogue, at present, is not having a fund-raising drive among it membership of 170 families, because, as Rabbi Zelikovitz said, “everyone in our congregation is literally under water. We have a strong membership but it’s not appropriate to ask them now, perhaps in a month or two.” The jewel of the Manhattan Beach Jewish Center is its 613-seat main sanctuary — even with the lights out because electricity had not yet been restored on the day of our visit, two-and-a-half weeks after Sandy, the huge hall of prayer with its stain glass windows is magnificent. “What a place to daven,” I thought as Mr. Litman proudly showed it to me. More than a half-century ago, when the architects designed the current building, some premonition must have told them to put the sanctuary on the third floor. It’s quite a hike up the stairs and requires a Shabbos elevator, but the sanctuary emerged unscathed and ready for use once the rest of the building becomes operable. That may be by this week, Mr. Litman said. The 16 Sifrei Torah and seforim are untouched, the pews are ready to be occupied, and of course, Rabbi Zelikovitz is eager to get back on the bima.
“The shul is going to survive but it got hit very badly financially,” the rabbi said. “Losing the caterer [who paid a monthly rent] although temporarily is a big hit for us.” He expects Rambam to return, but perhaps with a smaller student body. Most of the people in the community had returned to their homes by the time of our visit, the rabbi told us. I asked him if any boats from Sheepshead Bay had wound up in the streets, as in some maritime communities; he said no, but related the story of a homeowner who heard a banging at his door during the storm, went to see who was there, and discovered that it was his car. When a community has taken such a severe hit (although no one died), I asked, what does a rabbi say to them? In his drosha for Chaye Sarah, Rabbi Zelikovitz told his congregation, some of whom were crying, that such a tzarah (sorrow) “gets you to refocus. What are your priorities? What are your values in life? Avraham Aveinu had ten tests. Most of the commentators explain that if you’ve passed the test, you’ve met the challenge, you’ve become a better person and become closer to Hashem. You keep the mitzvot better; you treat people better; you get a clarity that you didn’t have before. I think it will be proven of value to people who went through this.”
OU leaders, lay and professional, have been distributing checks from the Hurricane Fund on their visits. Rabbi Isaacs brought with him a check and presented it to Rabbi Zelikovitz for his Discretionary Fund. The rabbi made the wise decision to disburse it to “individuals who were hit hard.” As with the OU Hurricane Fund itself, in cases in which the recipient receives insurance or other payments, the money will be returned to the Discretionary Fund to go to someone else. As we got up to leave, Rabbi Zelikovitz expressed his profound gratitude to the OU and invited us to return. “I hope we meet under better circumstances,” Rabbi Isaacs told him. “Perhaps at a chassaneh (wedding) here,” Rabbi Zelikovitz responded. Hopefully just like the wedding I attended there some years ago, in that fondly remembered time when major hurricanes hit New York about as often as total eclipses of the sun. Photo credit: Stephen Steiner Support the OU Emergency Fund to Aid Institutions and Community Members and help our communities recover and rebuild. 100% of funds go directly to those in need. Donate now.
Stephen Steiner is Orthodox Union Director of Public Relations.