The torrential rains that pounded the Southeastern United States last week flooded the Chabad-Lubavitch of South Broward synagogue and community center in Hallandale Beach, Fla. Some 20 people were stranded by the rising floodwaters and sought shelter in – and later, escape from – a building on the campus that serves as home to a Jewish ritual bath and preschool, while residents elsewhere in the Miami suburb fled their devastated homes.

Speaking on Wednesday, days after being rescued, Rabbi Raphael Tennenhaus was calm and collected, saying that he was focusing his efforts on repairing the campus’ severely damaged buildings and coordinating relief for six area families that were displaced by the downpours that cumulatively dumped upwards of 14 inches of rain.

Congregants attributed the fact that Tennenhaus and his staff were able to clean up enough to hold Shabbat services at the center to nothing more than a Chanukah miracle.

“We prayed in the puddles,” remarked the rabbi.

According to Hinda Levin, a student at the nearby Chaya Aydel Seminary who was attending a Chanukah party for post-high school seminary girls and women from the community when the storms struck on the night of Dec. 17, things turned ominous when two students noticed water leaking in from the outside. They went to an adjacent building to warn Tennenhaus, who was working in his office.

At the same time, Broward Sheriff’s Office Cmdr. Michael Calderin was on the phone with the rabbi, informing him that the city was under a flood warning and that rescue help would be available in the low-lying areas. Tennenhaus informed the officer, a friend of his, that an 83-year-old woman with a heart condition was among the attendees at the party.

Back at the celebration, Levin saw the water rising quickly through a window.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, the water is already a foot high,’ ” recalled Levin, a 19-year-old native of Wynnewood, Pa., whose father is the program director at the Lubavitch House serving the University of Pennsylvania. “We managed to get some towels and try to make sure the bookshelves wouldn’t get damaged.”

As they waited for emergency personnel, the women started moving books to higher shelves, and collecting preschool furniture in drier pockets of the room. They even decided to learn a Chasidic discourse together.

Then, the ceiling caved in, sending cascades of water into the room.

“And when we opened the door,” said Levin, “it was a like a river pouring in water.”

Calderin himself arrived just past midnight, parking his car a small distance away after attempting to navigate the deep waters surrounding the Chabad House.

“It was very challenging,” the commander told The Miami Herald. “As I was trying to get to them, the engine kept sputtering. I was pretty much almost immersed completely in the water.”

The rabbi with them, the group trudged slowly through the waist-high water, and was evacuated in two shifts.

“I stayed behind to help the older lady,” said Levin.

At about 3:30 in the morning, the seminary students lit their Chanukah menorahs in their dorms.

Workers assess the damage at the Hallandale Beach center.
Workers assess the damage at the Hallandale Beach center.

Cleaning Up

The first congregant to open the synagogue at 5:45 that morning cried when he saw the devastation. An estimate later tallied the damage at more than $200,000 not covered by insurance.

“I was in shock,” said Boaz Sussman. “I had tears in my eyes.”

Sussman, 64, described said that sludge, not unlike sewer water, covered the synagogue floor.

“I couldn’t believe what I saw,” said the kosher supervisor. “It was like sewer overflow had brought leaves and all the drech from the outside into the synagogue.”

As he walked through the buildings, he saw the true extent of the damage.

“The offices and the preschool were completely destroyed,” said Sussman. “Everything is going to have to be replaced.”

Tennenhaus said that workers installed more than 100 fans to dry out carpets and walls. The center’s Chai Tots preschool had to cancel its last day of classes, he added, and hopes to reopen after a two-week winter vacation.

About 100 congregants still managed to come for Shabbat services, which included a birthday celebration for an 89-year-old man.

Some 40 people returned Monday morning for a bar mitzvah celebration and breakfast. After the party, contractors began clearing away drywall. Right now, there’s no way to tell how much mold is in the walls and floors, and behind the tiles in the wheelchair-accessible Mei Menachem Mikvah, a ritual bath that was dedicated just last year, said Tennenhaus.

The rabbi has since reached out to six families in the community that are now staying at local hotels.

“There is mold in their damaged houses,” he said. “And the mold is dangerous for their young children.”

The Chabad House is now raising money for the families and trying to secure better housing options them.

“We are doing whatever we can to make life more comfortable and safe for them,” said Tennenhaus. “And we’re just trying to do as much as we can to rebuild.”

Chabad-Lubavitch of South Broward has set up a Web page to coordinate relief efforts. It can be found by clicking here.