Even with entire neighborhoods in the dark and devastation stretching for miles, glimmers of life returning to normal could be seen all across the northeastern United States. Among those fighting to strengthen a sense of community were the region’s Jewish centers, such as Chabad-Lubavitch of Manhattan Beach, which forged ahead – despite no power and a building interior encased in mud – to offer a meaningful Sabbath service to locals.
“We felt that people were so down and depressed that we needed to open, so that people could come and make their own personal prayers, and have a place to be with other people in the community,” Shula Winner, the synagogue and community center’s co-director said on Sunday. “We actually attracted people who don’t usually come.”
And in those areas not hit as hard by the wind, rain and storm surge of Hurricane Sandy, volunteers signed up en masse to get supplies and support to those in need. Such was the case at Chabad-Lubavitch of Midtown Manhattan, which dispatched two buses of volunteers to the city of Oceanside to staff a soup kitchen, go door to door with critical supplies and help people clear debris from their homes.
Sometimes a Chabad House served as a shelter, while in other cases, a Chabad House became a rallying point.
Winner’s husband, Rabbi Avrohom Winner, was going around the streets Friday offering to help Jewish residents don the prayer boxes known as tefillin. He encouraged those he came in contact with to give thanks for being alive, while his associates offered whatever help they could to those looking to begin the arduous process of rebuilding.
“It’s been very exhausting and draining,” said Winner’s wife. “But people were very thankful we were available for them.”
Chabad of Staten Island co-director Chani Katzman reported that she and her husband got a storm relief center set up in a storefront; they’re accepting pillows, blankets, cleaning supplies and toiletries that people can use for everyday needs and to clean up their houses.
“It’s going to be tough,” she said. “We’re going to take it one day at a time, and we’re going to keep our relief center open every day. We’ll just find out who needs what.”
A teacher in the Chabad’s preschool saw her house gutted and her cars washed away, Katzman said by cell phone as she waited in line for gasoline so she could deliver pillows and blankets to the teacher’s house.
“I am going to as soon as I can get gas take eight pillows and blankets to my friend who works in the school,” she said. “She keeps telling me, ‘I’m fine. We’re demolishing the house; we’re just carting it away.’ ”
Residents with power and rooms to spare have even opened their homes.
“People are really just being absolutely wonderful,” said Katzman. “It’s very heartwarming.
Rabbi Mendy Kasowitz of Chabad of Essex County in West Orange, N.J., spent the weekend with lots of guests, sending people to private homes with power Friday night and trying to respect a nighttime area curfew. On Saturday, a sizeable crowd showed up, packing away herring, salads and kebabs.
“Nobody wanted to go home to their cold, dark houses,” he explained.
On Sunday, the center hosted dinner with another synagogue in town and area sponsors for those who still didn’t have power.
“My wife sat and literally called every single person who she had the number for in her phone,” he said.
Attendees munched on Chinese food as a live band worked to lift people’s spirits.
“People were so happy to be sitting together in a warm room eating food,” he said. “And they said the music made a huge difference.”
They planned to spend Monday night engaged in Torah study.
“The theme is kindness,” he said. “Everybody is just bending over backwards to make sure that everyone is being cared for and accommodated.”