As the storm that was once Hurricane Ida lashed drenching rain on New York and reports of flooding were emerging, Rabbi Shmuel Kogan decided to check on the building that houses Ganeinu, the elementary school he runs with his wife, Shevy.

Less than a mile from his home, Kogan found himself blocked turn after turn with roads becoming rushing rivers. At one point, he had to leave his car and wade through water to reach the building. He got close enough to see that more than two feet of water was blocking the glass front door with some pouring through into the lower level.

Just hours after they welcomed students there on Wednesday morning for orientation, he called his wife and told her that nearly everything was damaged or outright destroyed.

But what could have been a moment to throw in the towel has turned into a rallying cry for community members, who have raised more than $200,000 in just a few days. Included in that sum is $98,000 via a GoFundMe Page set up by a school parent to ensure that the Ganeinu Academy, which currently offers a preschool, kindergarten and first grade, remains intact, even if students must temporarily relocate.

“It was like a war zone,” said Irina Aronova, whose youngest daughter, Rachel, is in first grade, and who helped with cleanup on Sept. 2. “It was shocking to see what the rain did—all the damage. I could never imagine water could do that. The supplies with the kids’ names were floating in dirty water.

“I felt so bad for Shevy and the teachers who put so much work into opening the school the day before the flooding, and I wondered what we would do next,” she continued, adding that she was even more shocked when the Kogans announced a meeting for later Thursday night to discuss their next steps.

Rabbi Kogan had spent the day trying to secure a location where they could temporarily relocate their classes and found a building with six, brand-new, empty classrooms—exactly what they needed for Ganeinu’s current six classes. (The Kogans are adding a grade each year until they have a full elementary school.)

He announced plans to restart school on Oct. 1 in the new building and was surprised by parents’ responses.

What could have been a moment to throw in the towel has turned into a rallying cry for community members, who have raised more than $200,000 in just a few days.
What could have been a moment to throw in the towel has turned into a rallying cry for community members, who have raised more than $200,000 in just a few days.

Parents Solidly Behind New Efforts

“My fear was that we would lose students, and we might still, but the support we saw at the meeting from parents, it was almost a full house. They were saying go forward; we are with you. What do you need? Let’s fundraise. Here’s a pledge,” he recalled. “They told us how important this school, this building is to them, and that they need us back. It has been so encouraging.”

Angela Shimunov’s son currently attends Ganeinu and her older daughter graduated from the preschool. She said she is devastated by the flooding: “It means everything to me. I’m heartbroken. The pain inside my heart is so real.”

But she takes strength from the way the Kogans have handled everything.

“Their emunah [‘faith’] is very encouraging, and Rabbi Kogan is shedding a lot of light at a time when most people would say, ‘OK, maybe this is not a good thing’ or take it negatively. They are spinning it only in a positive direction, and that helps to elevate our community and our hopes and our emunah as well,” said Shimunov. “This is a big test, and they are passing it with flying colors. Whatever it takes, we are there for them because whenever there was a time that was rough for us, Shevy and Rabbi Kogan were always there for us.”

In addition to the school, Ganeinu also offers an afterschool program for kids in public school and a vibrant CTeen program that was a gateway to growing interest in and connection to Judaism for Aronova’s oldest children, Daniella, 17, and Ilana, 14.

In fact, Daniella feels such a connection to the school that she made a donation to help with repairs from money she earned over the summer, even though the family had already made a contribution.

As her mother explained: “She said, ‘I’m going to do this because Rabbi Kogan did so much for me, and my sister loves Ganeinu so much.’ ”

According to Rabbi Kogan, Daniella’s donation and that of another CTeen youngster from the community, who gave Shevy an envelope full of dollar bills, were particularly meaningful. “This showed us how much of a real, real, real impact Ganeinu had on people,” he said. “Sometimes, when you are so busy, you forget the human aspect.”

“The flooding definitely set us back because we are dealing with things we didn’t expect. We are pulling furniture out of a disaster zone and figuring out how to redo two months’ worth of [school setup and planning] into five days,” said Kogan. Plus, they now have to buy new furniture and lease the new classroom space to the tune of $18,000 a month.

Parents met with Rabbi Shmuel and Shevy Kogan to help decide the school's fate.
Parents met with Rabbi Shmuel and Shevy Kogan to help decide the school's fate.

‘Our Families Crave a Sense of Belonging’

But, he added, it has also created an opportunity. Plans were already in the works for a 20,000-square-foot expansion to an adjacent lot. With the students now off-site in their temporary classrooms, the Kogans will be able to readjust their plans and create a more comprehensive remodel to better serve their growing student body.

Noting that they are community school with many Sephardic, Israeli and Bucharian families who struggled to maintain their Judaism despite generations of Soviet repression, Kogan said “we call ourselves a boutique school. Our families crave a sense of belonging, and they find it here. Some have even tried other Jewish schools, but found that Ganeinu—Hebrew for ‘Our Garden’—is a home for them and their children.”

Shimunov agreed, saying, “It’s not just a school; it’s a community. It’s where we go for the holidays, and my husband and I are very involved in everything—organizing, spreading the word about programs, fundraising.”

It’s also how Aronova, her husband, Abraham Yagudayev, and their children see things.

“As a family, we grew closer to Judaism because of the Kogans,” she said. “My husband studies with Rabbi Kogan once a week. And the way the rabbi works with teens in public school, and connects and brings Judaism [to them] with love, they are proud to be Jewish.

“And for the younger kids coming to Ganeinu,” continued Aronova, “they run to go to school. I don’t know of many other students who would be upset if their school got shut down. That tells me they have a beautiful wisdom and positive energy that gets kids to grow closer to Judaism.”

To contribute to the Ganeinu Academy rebuilding fund, click here.