Atlanta Jewish Community Members Open Their Homes and Hearts to Florida Evacuees

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14 Sep 2017

Facing predictions of a direct hit from Hurricane Irma, the largest storm the Atlantic had ever seen, Naftali Herrmann told his daughters’ nanny that they planned to evacuate from their home in Boca Raton to Atlanta. When he invited her to join them, she asked, “Who do you know in Atlanta?”

“We don’t know anyone,” said Naftali, who is Southeast Regional Director for OU Synagogue Services, “But the Jewish community is one family.”

Packing up their belongings, he took a last look at his home before driving away and wondered what things would look like when they returned. “Our house is our home,” he said, “It’s terrifying to think that our home, which is supposed to be where we’re safe, can no longer afford us that safety.”

Naftali and his family were among the more than 1,500 who evacuated from southern Florida to be embraced by the warmth of the Atlanta Jewish community.  Watching the Florida visitors mingle with their Atlanta hosts at kiddush, one could never have imagined the fear and trepidation they felt during the 20 hours spent in traffic, afraid that they would run out of gas or be stuck on the road for Shabbat.

From the jubilant dancing at Kabbalat Shabbat, the festive communal meals at both of Atlanta’s largest shuls, the community-wide kumsitz on Saturday night and concert on Sunday morning, all of which had hundreds of attendees, one could sense the Florida families had found an oasis from the week-long stress they had experienced as they prepared for the hurricane’s arrival.

The Atlanta Jewish community, known for its warmth and hospitality, has opened its doors to hurricane victims before. In 2005 they hosted evacuees from Hurricane Wilma and in 2016, to Savannah and Charleston evacuees from Hurricane Matthew.

Once again, as soon as calls went out that hosts were needed, community members eagerly signed up, offering their homes  for as long as needed, with one family hosting 75 people for Shabbat dinner and others willing to not only house families, but even families with dogs, cats and a snake!

With Atlanta’s two largest Orthodox synagogues–Beth Jacob and Young Israel of Toco Hills–at around 500 and 215 families respectively, feeding another 1,500 people was a challenge. As Rabbi Adam Starr of Young Israel of Toco Hills explained, “It’s like bringing in another congregation.”

Just as the Orthodox Union had mobilized to raise money for the Houston Jewish community, they were quick to find ways to help support the Florida evacuees in Atlanta.

“Part of the Orthodox Union’s mission is helping our communities when they are in need,” said Moishe Bane, president of the OU. “We were inspired by and grateful to the Atlanta Jewish community for all they were willing to do to help house Florida evacuees and we wanted to help them in any way we could.”

“With the help of Jewish communities worldwide, we were able to provide assistance to the wonderful community of Atlanta, which so graciously opened its homes to so many,” said OU Executive Vice President Allen Fagin.

Donations from individuals across the country helped to provide truckloads of food for Shabbat and the week, including 300 pounds of schnitzel, 3,000 hot dogs, 2,500 hamburgers, 1,200 challah rolls, and 25 cases of pre-made lasagna. They also provided 50 boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and 75 pizza pies which were served at the kumsitz.

“It was amazing to see the kids, who had experienced so much stress, dancing at the concert,” said Naftali. “We were so moved by the achdut [unity] we witnessed and the embrace of the Atlanta Jewish community. This was a weekend that both the evacuees and the hosts will never forget.”

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.