Nationwide Effort To Aid Sandy-Hit Congregations

Help for L.I. Reform synagogues still coming from New Orleans to Napa to Brooklyn.

02/06/13
Staff Writer
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Hundreds of Jewish holy books from a closing Flushing synagogue are looking for a new home.

And the timing could not be more fortuitous because Superstorm Sandy destroyed thousands of holy books — 40 tons of which were recently buried at a cemetery in the Catskills.

The Flushing congregation, the Garden Jewish Center at 24-20 Parsons Blvd., is in the process of merging with the Bay Terrace Jewish Center in Bayside and has discovered that it has hundreds of holy books — including daily and Sabbath prayer books — that it no longer needs.

“And we have tallism and four or five Torahs that need repair,” said Regina Vogelman, first vice president of the Garden Jewish Center, who is overseeing the donation of the holy books and Torahs.

The Garden Jewish Center is just one of many congregations from throughout the country that have come forward to help synagogues and other Jewish institutions here that sustained damage in the hurricane.

Vogelman has reached out to the New York Board of Rabbis to help determine those with the greatest need for the donated items. Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the board, said those in need should contact him.

The only drawback is that although some of the prayer books are in good condition, such as 250 copies of the DeSola Pool Siddurim, they are old editions that are not widely used today. But 50 copies of Stone edition of the Chumish are available, along with 50 copies of “High Holidays for Kids,” Adler’s’ Machzor for Rosh HaShanah, another for Yom Kippur and one book that contains the service for both Holy Days.

Rabbi Potasnik said that “in addition to synagogues, perhaps correctional institutions and health facilities could use them. Maybe some of the books will go to Israel.”

UJA-Federation of New York organized a twinning program in which members of a half-dozen synagogues unaffected by Sandy were paired with stricken congregations. Among them was Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, which set up an Amazon registry page that allows its members to buy items on the registry for Temple Israel of South Merrick, from library books to office furniture.

Also offering to help synagogues here was a rabbi from the New Orleans area, Robert Loewy, spiritual leader of Congregation Gates of Prayer, a Reform temple in Metairie, La., who experienced firsthand the devastation of a powerful storm when Hurricane Katrina barreled through his community in 2005. He contacted the Union for Reform Judaism to learn which Reform congregations had suffered damage and was told Temple Sinai in Massapequa, L.I., and West End Temple in Neponsit in the Rockaways in Queens.  

“Our community understands what it means to have water in your homes,” he said. “To have mold growing in the walls when you can’t get back into your home quickly — we can certainly identify with their experience. … We were concerned about the synagogue buildings themselves that had been damaged because we have people in our congregation who had dealt with that here and who could give them guidance.”

Rabbi Loewy said that when Sandy struck Oct. 29 he was leading a congregational tour in Israel. The storm caused the cancellation of his group’s flight Oct. 31 and they stayed in Israel an extra week. During that time, Rabbi Loewy said he “posted [on the Internet] a set of guidelines for dealing with the crisis based on my experience.” He said he posted it on the website of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis and that it was picked up by the website of the Jewish Federations of North America.

After returning to the U.S., Rabbi Loewy said he called the rabbis of both synagogues, Marjorie Slome at West End Temple and Janise Poticha of Temple Sinai.

“We talked about how to adjust and the things you need to think about,” he said. “And we spoke about caring for themselves because this would not be a short crisis and you have to preserve your strength in order to be helpful to others. … I knew they were getting aid from different sources and I said I would be happy to collect funds from my congregation for them to use as they wished. I raised $4,000 and gave a chunk to the two synagogues and bought gift cards with the rest for a synagogue in New Jersey [that had also been damaged].

“I said also that one of the things synagogues need to do besides giving gift cards is to recharge people’s spirits by gathering in the synagogue for joyous occasions. In our case in August 2005, Sukkot was the first holiday we could celebrate. So we had a Sukkot picnic, and since people did not have kitchens, it was nice for them to have food.”

Rabbi Loewy’s synagogue building was usable after electricity was restored; the carpeting and damaged furniture were removed and the walls were opened to prevent mold. The building sustained $1 million in damage and his 480-family congregation shrunk to 370 because some families were wiped out and never returned to the area. The building of a nearby Orthodox congregation was destroyed when it was inundated by eight feet of water, and its congregants held services in his building until last June, when it moved into a new building. 

The West End Temple, whose building was severely damaged in the storm and is still being renovated, used Rabbi Loewy’s donation to hold a Chanukah party for its members in a rented facility, Aviator Sports Complex in Brooklyn, according to Rabbi Slome. She said that about 150 people attended; she has a congregation of about 100 families.

“All of the decorations for the party were donated by Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan, and thousands of dollars worth of gift cards were donated by Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden, Conn.,” Rabbi Slome said.

She pointed out that members of about a dozen congregations from throughout New York donated their time and muscle in helping to clean the synagogue in the days and weeks after Sandy. Among them were Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, Congregation Beth Elohim and the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun and Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan, and Woodsland Community Temple in Greenburgh. 

“And one congregation in Napa, Calif., is going to be helping to restock our library,” Rabbi Slome said. “There are a lot of different people who really stepped up to the plate to help us. I’m completely overwhelmed by the generosity of the Jewish community, both local and far away. At this juncture most of the volunteer work is over, but we will need volunteers in coming weeks to help paint our nursery school and religious school.” The rabbi said she would post that information on the synagogue’s website, www.westendtemple.org.

Rabbi Poticha said she took Rabbi Loewy’s advice to heart and that when visiting the homes of each of her congregation’s 95 families she tried to “raise their spirituality and give their souls a sense of hope even as they were mired down in the muck of their own homes.

“I cried with them and pulled down sheet rock with them. [The damage] was bad. Two of my congregants found cracks in their foundation. Some of my congregants became sick because it was very cold and those who did not evacuate did not have heat in their homes. One congregant fell in her home and broke an arm; another fell and broke both ankles. It was one painful story after another.”

To “recharge their spirits,” as Rabbi Loewy suggested, Rabbi Poticha said she used the money Rabbi Loewy raised to hold a Chanukah party in the synagogue and hire a klezmer group that she could not have afforded without his help.

“They played for 10 or 15 minutes before services, with cantor during the service, and for another 10 or 15 minutes after the service,” he said. “People were up dancing and clapping. It was a wonderful night. We had 70 people there due to their generosity.”

Another congregation, Temple Shalom in Naples, Fla., sponsored a Shabbat dinner for her congregants, Rabbi Poticha said.

“As they were raising funds, I was knocking on the doors of my members who did not have e-mail or phones to invite them to the dinner,” she recalled. “Out of our 95 families, 85 attended the dinner and worship service. It was a wonderful way to bring our temple family together.”

Not only have other synagogues reached out to provide immediate help, but Rabbi Poticha said she has begun to “make abiding connections” with some of them. She noted that recently she received a call from a New Jersey synagogue president who offered to host a Shabbat dinner for the congregation and some of his board members. In addition, the New Jersey congregation is  discussing having its b’nai mitzvah class join Rabbi Poticha’s congregants for a gardening project this spring to replace the bushes and plants killed in the storm.

And the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan not only sent a check to help pay for new carpeting, but some of its members helped one of her congregants in Freeport clean house.

“Pictures of their deceased son were ruined and the only thing left was an invitation to his bar mitzvah,” the rabbi said. “Blankets knitted by the mother of my congregant were found sopping wet. A woman from Wise took them and had them cleaned. These little things you do for people mean so much.”

And plans are being made to have several religious school classes at Stephen Wise join her congregation in the spring for a tour of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center in Glen Cove, L.I.

“Out of tragedy eventually comes blessings and some of the blessings are relationships we are developing with other congregations,” Rabbi Poticha said. 

stewart@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

02/07/2013 - 10:36

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