After the Storm
by Bonnie Riva Ras
hurricanes do not arrive without
warning. Their paths are
charted and likely landfalls are
predicted days in advance.
There is time to board up windows,
lay in a supply of fresh water and batteries,
and evacuate if necessary.
And this was the case with Hurricane
Irene, which stormed north up the eastern
seaboard from North Carolina's Outer
Banks, where it made landfall on August 27.
Much of the Northeast escaped the extensive
harm that had been predicted, but
already swollen rivers flooded in New Jersey,
upstate New York, and Vermont, causing
When it became clear that the hurricane
was going to hit United Synagogue's
Northeast distract, its leaders – district chair
Bernard King-Smith, district chair-elect Dr.
Jack Fein, and district kehilla relationship
manager Howard Goldberg – worked
together to develop a disaster response plan.
They were in touch with all of the kehillot
and their lay leaders before Shabbat – the
day before the storm was to hit – and passed
along information about organizations that
could help them. The United Synagogue
representatives also told kehillot leaders who
in United Synagogue would be able to help
them should they need aid. "Of course we
were not replacing disaster relief organizations,
like the Red Cross, but we would
be there for the specific needs that we could
address, and we would try to contact everyone
after the storm," King-Smith said.
On Sunday evening, once the storm had
passed, King-Smith, Fein, and Goldberg
notified the subdistrict chairs, and asked
them to make phone calls to the kehillot.
Two of the subdistrict chairs didn't have
power or landlines, but they were able to
use their cell phones.
The district already had a contact system
in place, assigning specific kehillot to each
sub chair. "We had a good system already
in place. We were able to get in touch with
the kehillot quickly after the storm to find
out about any damage," King-Smith said.
Although United Synagogue's Rock Hill,
Connecticut, office was in an area hardhit
by the storm, the office had power by
Monday morning. Jane Rubin, an office
staffer, was able to make phone calls. Goldberg
and King-Smith also called kehillot
in upstate New York and in Vermont, areas
that had experienced severe flooding.
In New York State, one of the hardest
hit areas was Fleischmans, a summer community
in the Catskills. A United Synagogue-
affiliated kehilla, Congregation Bnai
Israel, meets there from the end of June
through Sukkot. The synagogue was built
in 1920 and it is on the National Register
of Historic Places. Although it is on an
avenue that was inundated by the storm,
the building stands on high ground. As a
result it wasn't under water, but the crawl
space underneath the building was flooded
and coated with mud. "The flooding damaged
an oil burner that has to be repaired,
and two propane tanks along the side of the
building were washed away by the five-foot
high water," according to the kehilla's president,
David J. Schneiderman. The grounds
also were badly damaged.
Many congregants were affected. A local
hotel was washed away; a family staying
there lost its belongings. (A woman summering
in Fleischmans, who was not a member
of a Conservative kehilla, died when the
storm hit the hotel.) Many congregants had
muddy basements to clean up and one family
lost its home entirely.
The Schneidermans' home is on high
ground; the family took in four other families
who were evacuated and had nowhere
else to go. The evacuees included Rabbi
Moshe Edelman, who was serving as one of
the congregation's summer rabbis.
"After Shabbat, I moved my car from
under some large trees in front of the house
so that nothing would fall on it," Edelman
said. "I parked it up the street. At 7
on Sunday morning, I went to the front door
and saw that the nearby creek had overflowed
and turned into a torrent of a river in front
of the house. It was at least 25 feet wide, and if my car had been there it would have been
underwater or washed away. My car was safe
but I wasn't. I was evacuated a few minutes
later by the fire department."
On Sunday, when the rain slowed, Edelman
walked to town. There was damage and
destruction on Main Street, the soccer and
baseball fields had become a river 100 yards
wide, and a bridge was destroyed.
Schneiderman reported that the recovery
has been phenomenal. The National Guard
patrolled downtown and stopped people
from going into the flooded areas. And
Delaware County and New York State both
provided a great deal of help, as did nonprofit
organizations and volunteers. "The
Shabbat after the hurricane we benched ha
gomel" – recited the special blessing said after
surviving a dangerous situation – "because
we all survived," he added.
According to Rabbi Tziona Szajman of
Temple Israel of Vestal, in Binghamton, New
York, rain fell almost constantly during
the two weeks between Hurricane Irene and
Tropical Storm Lee. Lee was a very large
storm that deluged New York's Susquehanna
River valley, causing the river to crest above
25 feet and overflow Binghamton's retaining
walls. The city's downtown was inundated,
schools and stores were flooded up
to their second stories. More than 20,000
people were evacuated.
One of the largest evacuation centers was
at Binghamton University. Szajman said that
Temple Israel members brought books,
crayons, and games for those who had left
home with just the clothing on their backs.
Members supported other members and
gave them places to stay.
After the flood, local churches and synagogues
hosted communal meals for people
who were homeless or still had no electricity.
Students from the university helped with
the clean up and the food kitchens.
As in Fleischmans, the synagogue is on
high ground, so it was not damaged, but
congregants lost homes and businesses. The
local Jewish federation is coordinating a
cleanup, and the kehilla is posting information
on its website for anyone who needs
help or wants to volunteer.
"There is an amazing spirit of caring,"
Szajman said. "No matter who you talk to and offer to help, they say there are people
worse off who need the help more."
Hurricane Irene affected United Synagogue
kehillot in other districts too. Temple
Israel in Ridgewood, New Jersey was
flooded. "We cancelled the Sunday morning
minyan and when I went to check on
the synagogue after the storm passed, it was
surrounded by water," Rabbi David Fine
said. "Our parking lot sits alongside a brook
that had overflowed. The two driveways
were rivers roaring into the street." He and the kehilla's president "had to wade in waisthigh
water to reach the building."
When they got there, they found about
three feet of water in the basement, flooding
a youth lounge and storage room. They
called members who had sump pumps to
come over and pump water out. But there
was nowhere for the water to go. "It wasn't
until Monday afternoon that the water
in the parking lot was gone. It took until
Tuesday to pump all the water out of the
basement," Fine said.
When the water receded, it left behind
muddy sediment contaminated by raw
King-Smith said, "We were very lucky.
And now we are better prepared in case there
is a next time."