Hurricane Sandy crashed up the coast of the U.S. eastern seaboard a year ago this month, leaving destruction, despair and lots of water in its wake. Belle Harbor—a sleepy enclave in Queens, N.Y., that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean—was a prime target. Only four blocks wide at its widest point, the peninsula was overcome by the storm’s waves and surges; some four to five feet of water flowed down its streets.

“It was a war zone,” recalls Esther Konig, who first moved to the neighborhood in the 1960s and is responsible for the community mikvah. “The neighborhood was in absolute turmoil. Almost everyone’s home was damaged. We lost power and had to haul sludge out of our basement. Others had it worse; their houses were completely destroyed.”

Rabbi Levi Osdoba of Congregation Bais Yehuda and Chabad representative since 2005 to the Jewish community of several hundred there, says his synagogue was converted into a relief center.

“We sustained flood damage,” he says. “And we lost power and heat, but we used generators and were able to use the synagogue as a base to dispense food, clothing and cleaning supplies as long as needed.”

‘Decided to Go All Out’

One of the rabbi’s communal duties is to oversee the mikvah—a ritual bath used for family purity, serving as the mainstay of traditional Jewish family life—built in 1987 on land donated by Rabbi Chaim Wakslak, then rabbi of Young Israel of Belle Harbor.

“Just before the hurricane struck, we had emptied the water from the pools to make some repairs on the steps, so a lot of the floodwaters flowed right into the empty cisterns. We soon discovered that there was significant damage,” he explains. “The water, which was mixed with sewage and sand, had reached four feet high and totally discolored the tiles. Also, the heaters, washers, dryers, boilers and air conditioners were all destroyed.” They also discovered mold in some of the walls.

Still, the structure remained sound.

There was devastation, but not despair, in Belle Harbor, N.Y., in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
There was devastation, but not despair, in Belle Harbor, N.Y., in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

In March of 2013, even before Konig was able to move back into her house, she met with Osdoba to discuss plans for the mikvah.

“We considered just replacing the damaged tiles, and then toyed with replacing the tiles in the entire room so that things would match,” she says. “Ultimately, we decided to go all out and remodel the entire facility in the most spectacular way, so that it would be attractive to the women who use it and even serve to introduce other women to this mitzvah, which is the cornerstone of Jewish family life.”

But raising the necessary $250,000 in a community already burdened by terrible damage to almost everyone’s homes and businesses was a daunting task. Konig was encouraged when local businessman Sol Friedlander supplied the initial key money to get the project rolling, showing her and the community that it could be done.

With the help of Rabbi Baruch Cywiak of Mikvah USA, whose mission is to support the establishment and rebuilding of mikvahs in communities across the country, they began collecting money. Incredibly, most of the funds raised came from local residents, mostly members of Bais Yehudah or those who know Osdoba through his other communal projects.

“Rabbi Cywiak approached one individual in Rabbi Osdoba’s congregation, and the man pledged to give $25,000,” says Konig. “After discussing the matter with Rabbi Osdoba, the man—who wanted to remain anonymous—significantly increased his donation and got his extended family to contribute as well. Altogether, this one very generous and modest family donated the majority of the funding for the new mikvah.”

Raising the necessary $250,000 to rebuild a mikvah in a community already burdened by terrible damage to almost everyone’s homes and businesses was a daunting task.
Raising the necessary $250,000 to rebuild a mikvah in a community already burdened by terrible damage to almost everyone’s homes and businesses was a daunting task.

“Of course, there were smaller donations as well, which were equally important,” stresses Konig, who is quick to point out that they needed each and every contribution to reach the total sum needed. Through the combined efforts of Osdoba and Rabbi Tsvi Selengut of Congregation Ohab Zedek in Belle Harbor, the Orthodox Union also supplied a grant towards the construction.

At the same time, the community set to work drawing up plans for the new facility. Konig visited five mikvahs in the New York metropolitan area to gather ideas for the design and amenities. Osdoba worked closely with Rabbi Itche Treiger to ensure that the new mikvah would be up to the highest standards ofhalachah.

Some donated time and expertise. Shifra Mendelovitz, of Act II Interiors, volunteered to coordinate the color schemes and decor, selecting colors, lighting and other elements to accentuate the spa-like and soothing atmosphere of the mikvah.

A Surprise Reunion

As the project neared completion, Konig asked the anonymous primary donor if he would consider naming the new mikvah in memory of a loved one. The man replied with the idea of honoring his wife’s late great-grandmother.

With two weeks left before the Aug. 11 dedication—and the contractor working till midnight to get everything done on time—Osdoba asked Konig to invite the donor and his wife to the construction site to show them the progress.

Rabbi Levi Osdoba, right, examining the damage following Hurricane Sandy.
Rabbi Levi Osdoba, right, examining the damage following Hurricane Sandy.

“As soon as I saw the young lady, she looked familiar. I said, ‘You look exactly like so-and-so.’ She replied that so-and-so was her mother and asked me how I knew her,” Konig recalls with a choked voice. “I told her that her mother was my first cousin.”

Amid live music and feasting, 150 community members gathered this summer to dedicate Mikvah Beer Temer Mirel, named for a woman whose two descendants worked overtime to ensure that the community not be bereft of its purifying waters.

Even though Belle Harbor is still picking up the pieces left over from last October’s devastating weather, Osdoba notes that one body of water is staying put, attracting women drawn to a mitzvah now beautiful inside and out.