Hurricane Sandy has left some Jewish communities and families up and down the east coast in varied states of recovery and ruin. For many, life returned to partial or complete normalcy when the power came back on, but for many others, the lonely and desperate work of rebuilding their lives is just beginning.
With cars swept away and some houses still uninhabitable, many are now anxiously awaiting waves of insurance reimbursement claims and are struggling to buy even the very basics. For those without flood insurance, the desperation can be absolutely crushing.
“There’s a lot of chaos and many feel lonely,” said Rabbi Zalman Wolowik, co-director of Chabad of the Five Towns in Cedarhurst, New York. “When people were out of power, there was a certain universal sense of community and camaraderie. Now they’re on their own. Everyone’s dealing with their own tsoris (troubles), and we’re trying to help them to work their way through it.”
As part of the relief efforts, Chabad Headquarters has launched an
international appeal to help as many as 40 emissary families hit hardest by the storm to rebuild their own lives and communal centers, and to help rebuild the lives of local community members. This weekend, as many as 1,000 Chabad institutions around the world began reaching out to their communities to support those most devastated by storm.
Although some local emissaries do not yet know if or when they’ll be able to return to their homes and centers, all of the hardest-hit Chabad emissaries are tirelessly continuing to help those in their communities to cope.
With his own house destroyed and his Chabad center’s kitchen and social hall ruined by the storm, Rabbi Eli Goodman, of Chabad of the Beaches in Long Beach, New York, said people in his area have a long road ahead. “Right now, people are hurting,” he said. His own family – he has four small children – has temporarily moved into a summer home in his community, with most of their personal belongings destroyed by the flood. Even so, his family’s focus remains on helping others.
While people in the first stage after the storm needed food, shelter, clothing and safety, Goodman explains, now that most of the lights are back on, they’re starting to realize the extent of the work ahead. “The second stage is to help people put their lives back together somewhat, so they have the basics, like essential furniture and so forth,” he said. “Chabad has always been there, people always know they can come to Chabad.”
Goodman says that requests keep pouring in, and he and his wife and a team of volunteers have been scrambling to keep people out of shelters, as well as providing kosher food and Shabbat plans.
With local fundraising all but impossible, Chabad of the Beaches has put its annual dinner, which had been planned for a few months from now, on hold. Nevertheless, they’re pushing ahead with help for the community and will do their best to keep going with a small budget, said Goodman, adding that families have been calling to ask them not to cash Hebrew school tuition checks just yet. “We’re going to have to distribute a huge amount of funds, and many people here are in need for the first time.” Goodman and many others are relying for the first time on people around the world to come to their aid.
They’ve certainly got a lot to do. They’re conducting a phone call program to reach all of the 1,000 families involved in their center. “We want to find out if they’re OK, what their needs are and how we can help every single family,” he said. In addition, they’ve relocated their Hebrew School and just this week held their first program there since the storm.
With Chabad’s kitchen and social hall still submerged in feet of water, initial estimates are that it will cost at least half a million dollars to begin putting it all back together. “I just hope it’s one step back and five steps forward,” he said.
In the Five Towns, Rabbi Wolowik reacted to the international relief efforts: “It’s a beautiful thing to show unity around the world,” he said. He also noted that those wanting to help out a specific Chabad center that’s been impacted can call or email each directly to see what needs to be done.
In his own community, one donor asked to be matched with a family that needs their house rebuilt. “The donor will make it happen, the family feels great that they can thank a specific individual, and they also know someone in particular is taking care of them.”
And people have been giving in many different ways. A man who owns an appliance store, for example, is offering washers and dryers at company cost to those who lost theirs during the hurricane.. “People are waiting in line for boilers,” he noted. “If one can get access to materials, whether it’s a boiler or other materials that can help people rebuild their homes, that will be tremendous,” he said.
Walking up and down the streets, it doesn’t even look like the Five Towns, said Wolowik. With homes condemned, and damage everywhere he looks, he said people are waiting for professional teams to come and clean up the oil and contamination.
Their Chabad house is fine, and continues to serve as a community relief center, offering meals and work space for those who need it, he said. And now, as life goes back to normal for some, they’re still there for all, ready to be a resource for those still hurting who don’t know how to take that next step, he said. “There’s the feeling of loneliness, where they feel they’re alone with this, and that’s where Chabad comes in to say ‘no you’re not alone in this, we’re going to come in and help you,’” he said.
Rabbi Moshe Gourarie, of the Chabad Jewish Center - Toms River in Ocean County, New Jersey, said everyone knows people who are still without the necessities and who have to practically start their lives again. “People are still shaken up. Even if your house is fine, you know someone – your kid’s teacher, your friend’s friend – you know someone who is displaced.”
They see it in their Chabad, as well, he said, with people they see every week missing from services because they’re staying with friends in other places, their own homes uninhabitable.
One couple emailed him from Israel to check on an older relative they hadn’t heard from. Gourarie went to his house, where he found the man cleaning up from the storm with a friend, and offered him food, clothing, and cleaning supplies. “I emailed them back and gave them a number where they could reach him, and they were very happy,” he said.
The damage he saw on the way was devastating, though, he said, adding that the images people outside the area have seen don’t do justice to the situation and its struggles. “Every single house has piles of garbage in front of it, everything they emptied from their house.”
Boxes of donations have been coming in from other communities, which have sent food and clothing to help out. “It’s inspiring and uplifting to see people from other communities help this community,” he said.
Their Chabad house didn’t see any major damage, so they’ve been focused on helping others. “We tried our best to do what we can,” he said.
“When we all unite together to help those who need help, it makes us stronger and it uplifts those who need help,” said Gourarie.
“This is our responsibility, one to another.”
To contribute to the Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund to help Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries throughout the affected region provide vital services to victims, click here.