Less than a year into her job at North Shore Synagogue in Syosset, N.Y., Rabbi Debbie Bravo sounded remarkably poised as she and her community face one of their most powerful challenges together: Hurricane Sandy.
Bravo’s land line was dead. When she picked up her cell phone Tuesday, she had just returned from the local police station.
“I have a child who takes medication that has to be refrigerated,” she said calmly.
As we prepare to mark the first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, there is a near unanimous consensus among scientists that the world is getting hotter at an alarming pace and that human beings have had something to do with it. A just-released report by a select United Nations panel leaves little to speculation, stating, “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”
The immense, costly damage caused by Hurricane Sandy last year continues to affect communities along the East Coast. Yet, as is common with severe disasters, after the initial shock and subsequent media coverage dissipate, so too does philanthropic support. Jewish families are not immune to this problem. With this understanding, the Jim Joseph Foundation board of directors awarded grants to help families return to a sense of normalcy by accessing the Jewish education experiences that are integral to their lives.
Among Sandy’s casualties were 80 tons of sacred texts and ritual items, all requiring a respectful goodbye.
They too are the remnants of Sandy’s fury.
In the days after the superstorm flooded homes, synagogues and yeshivas, water-soaked Jewish holy books containing God’s name — known as shaimos — were brought by their owners to a truck in Far Rockaway,
Queens hired to transport them to a proper burial place.
“In a matter of hours, the 24-foot trailer was filled to capacity — too heavy to drive,” said Rabbi Aron Rosenberg, a teacher at Yeshiva Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway. “They had to unload some of the books into a smaller van to ease the burden on the truck.”
Amid all the loss from Sandy — at least 97 deaths were attributed to the storm and more than 95,000 buildings on Long Island alone were damaged or destroyed — tens of thousands of Jewish holy books, sacred writings and objects were also left in ruins. But unlike the 4.4 million cubic yards of debris Sandy left on Long Island that could be burned and dumped in landfills, Jewish law requires. that the shaimos be buried in sacred ground.
A company hired to collect and bury the shaimos charged thousands of dollars for one truckload.
Rabbi Rosenberg said that when the community realized how much more shaimos remained, a member of a family of truck owners offered to donate his services. He parked three vans at synagogues in the Five Towns and Queens that accepted shaimos from residents and institutions. Residents were also given a phone number to call to have their shaimos picked up by a van.
At the end of three weeks, three 18-wheel, 53-foot tractor-trailers, plus a 24-foot truck, had been filled with an estimated 30,000 destroyed holy books, in addition to tefillin, prayer shawls and five Torahs. In all, it weighed an estimated 160,000 pounds or 80 tons.
Several organizations were involved in the collection and burial, including Chasdei Lev in Seagate, Brooklyn; Chesed Shel Emes in Boro Park, Brooklyn; and the Achiezer Community Resource Center in Far Rockaway.
Rabbi Yaakov Bender, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Darchei Torah, asked that one of the trailers stop at his school before the materials were driven to a cemetery in upstate Woodridge for burial.
“I felt this would be a wonderful opportunity to teach the children about the sanctity of holy books,” he explained.
The students — 1,900 of them ranging in age from 6 to their mid-20s — joined their teachers and many residents of the community in greeting the truck. As everyone gathered at the rear of the truck, the rear doors were opened and the mounds of books were clearly visible inside.
Rabbi Zevi Trenk, principal of the yeshiva’s high school, said it was “an emotional experience because burying holy books is like going to a real funeral. There was a Torah there and one person had letters and books from great rabbis of previous generations that were destroyed. That’s why it was so emotional.”
At one point, Rabbi Trenk reached into the truck and pulled out a book, kissed it and proclaimed: “This one is mine. I’m not letting it go. It is waterlogged, it’s wet … we’re going to put it back on the shelves. We have to be strong and rebuild.”
In an interview, Rabbi Trenk said Rabbi Bender had asked him to speak to the students and suggested that his remarks be upbeat.
“He said there were many people who were down in spirits and I need you to speak upbeat,” Rabbi Trenk recalled. “How do you go to a lavaya [funeral] and speak upbeat?”
So he told the children that “one day we will understand why Sandy came, and our job now is to be happy and discover the hidden treasures buried in the Torah.”
Rabbi Bender said later that it was a particularly meaningful experience because “today with the advent of so many books sometimes people tend to lose the value of what a sefer [book] is. Now we hope kids will use a sefer, give it a kiss and put it back in the bookcase. Losing a sefer is like losing part of our life, part of our being. Kids I think will go away [from this event] with a very strong understanding of it.”
After brief remarks, the students and adults all walked behind the truck as it drove slowly for about one block.
“We escorted the truck just as you would escort a casket,” Rabbi Bender explained.
Many in the crowd were in tears.
“My own children were there,” said Rabbi Bender’s son, Rabbi Boruch Ber Bender. “It was an amazing thing to witness. I was worried that my children would be traumatized because it was a funeral, and as a father, I don’t want my children at a funeral. One is 4 and the other is 6. But the yeshiva handled it with such sensitivity and compassion for the children. It was explained in a soothing way, and it was great for them to be a part of what we hope will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Also attending the ceremony was Rabbi Moshe Lerer, the Jewish chaplain at New York’s largest psychiatric institution, Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Brentwood. A resident of Belle Harbor, Queens, who lives five houses from Jamaica Bay, he said he lost his entire library, including items from the 1800s.
“In my basement I had never had a drop of water,” he said. “This time close to seven feet of water and my oil tank ruptured. We intend to go back to the house in another week or two” after the cleanup is complete.
Rabbi Lerer said he attended the ceremony because “these are religious books that are to be treated with reverence and awe. If you drop a siddur [prayer book], you pick it up and kiss it. These books were torn, tattered, wet and had oil on them. We have to teach children to treat them with reverence even though they are no longer useful.”
Walking arm in arm with Rabbi Bender and Rabbi Trenk, Rabbi Lerer said it was “a very highly charged, emotional experience. You could hear a pin drop. There was no laughing, pushing, jostling. The children walked with sincerity. Good traits and good deeds are caught, not taught. After seeing something like this, you have a greater appreciation for things that are holy and for what a loss we sustained.”
There were more tears at the site of the burial as about 100 volunteers gathered to unload the trucks and bury their contents. The process took from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m.
A front-end loader was used to dig a hole 12 feet wide, 120 feet long and 15 feet deep. The hole had been even deeper, but workers struck water and had to pump it out before proceeding, according to Mayer Berger, director of operations for Chesed Shel Emes, which handled the burial.
He said New York State does not permit the burial of shaimos and that whatever burials occurred in the past had been illegal.
“But there is no way you are going to hide [a burial] with three tractor trailers of shaimos,” he said. “So I called the state Department of Environmental Conservation and they said it was the first time in history that they were giving a permit to bury shaimos. They OK’d it as a one-time thing, but said they are going to amend the regulations to permit it in the future for religious purposes.”
When the tractor-trailers arrived at the 19-acre site and volunteers began unloading the shaimos, neighbors called police to complain that rubbish was being illegally buried. Police came, checked with the DEC and left.
Berger said the five Torahs could not be buried there because Jewish law requires them to be buried in a cemetery. Arrangement for them to be buried with a funeral in his organization’s cemetery in upstate Liberty are still being made, Berger said.
Alon Goldberg, a board member at Yeshiva Darchei Torah, said he was one of the volunteers who helped bury the shaimos. He said his two sons, 6 and 8, had been at the ceremony at the school.
“I heard from them while I was on my way upstate,” he said. “They said it was an incredibly moving event. And it was more special because they knew I was waiting upstate for the truck.”
Because respect for the books demanded that they could not simply be thrown into the pit, the volunteers at first made a line and passed the books to each other as they took them from the trucks and put them in the pit. Then they started using wheelbarrows and garbage bags to move the books in a bid to speed up the process. Finally, they decided the fastest way was to use the front-end loader — placing the books in the machine, which then took them to the pit.
Rabbi Rosenberg, the yeshiva Hebrew studies teacher, said he too went upstate to help with the burial.
“We wore gloves and masks because a lot of the books had mold and toxins,” he said. “There was a very strong smell. At one point as we were unloading one of the trucks, I came across a book that was in the house of one our students. It was a Passover Haggadah that had been created by one of our teachers and it had his logo on it.”
Rabbi Rosenberg said he brought his three sons — 20, 16 and 14 — with him to help with the burial.
“The feeling was that this was a job that had to get done,” he said. “At one point, a rabbi from Monroe came to speak with us about what a great loss had occurred. That was a little emotional.”
For Sandy-ravaged houses of worship in the Rockaways, unique partnership bringing help.
For Jews in the Rockaways struggling to keep their religious communities alive in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, hope is a humble 24-foot-by-60-foot trailer.
It has been nearly two months since the superstorm ravaged the East Coast, damaging or destroying homes and businesses. At least three synagogues in the Rockaways were so badly damaged that they have yet to reopen.
As a Jewish parent, I tend to feel a bit gleeful in late November. No need to brave lengthy lines. No need to explain to disappointed children why chopping down a tree isn’t an eco-friendly option. Here — at last — is the upside to my childhood envy of Yuletide merriment.