Russian newcomers’ homes worst hit as Jewish community struggles to rebuild in ‘forgotten borough.’
After living in Brooklyn for a few years, Mark Reyfman, a native of Ukraine, found his “dream house” on the eastern shore of Staten Island.
A technician, he and his wife Yelena, a nurse, and their two children moved into a three-bedroom home in the borough’s Midland Beach neighborhood, two blocks from the Lower Bay, six years ago.
Then the nightmare came six weeks ago. Hurricane Sandy devastated their home, submerging it in nine feet of water. The Reyfmans evacuated, staying first with in-laws in Brooklyn; now they are living in a rented apartment back in Staten Island.
Last Sunday, they celebrated the first day of Chanukah at a party hosted by UJA-Federation’s Russian Division at the Arden Heights Boulevard Jewish Center. The party at the synagogue featured, in addition to the standard holiday refreshments and singing, the distribution of gift cards and information about government benefits.
A few miles away, at the Jewish Community Center of Staten Island, on Arthur Kill Road, Anatoly and Anna Petrikovsky, former residents of Kiev, celebrated Chanukah with their two children at a Sunday Funday program sponsored by the JCC.
The Petrikovskys, who moved to a townhouse on the beach — “We had a front-row view” of the hurricane’s surge,” Anatoly said — are living with relatives in Brooklyn until repairs on their house are complete.
The Reyfmans and the Petrikovskys are typical victims of Sandy on Staten Island. The “forgotten borough,” as Staten Island residents call their home.
“The devastation [there] is really equal” to the damage in other boroughs, said Rabbi Yochanan Ivry, spiritual leader of Congregation Toras Emes. He and his family moved into an apartment in the synagogue after his family’s home after their home lost heat, water and electrical power.
While much of the damage to the local Jewish community in such better-publicized areas as Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn’s Coney Island and Sea Gate neighborhoods, and Queens’ Far Rockaway took place in institutions like synagogues and schools, residents’ homes bore the brunt of the water and wind damage on Staten Island. Besides minor wind damage to one Staten Island shul, the borough’s communal buildings emerged intact from Sandy, leaders of the Staten Island 50,000-member Jewish community say.
But the homes of thousands of Jews there were heavily damaged, as were many small businesses owned by members of the Jewish community.
The story of Staten Island’s Jews since the storm, then, is largely an émigré story.
Most long-term Jewish residents of Staten Island live inland, on higher ground, and were largely spared from the worst, waterside affects of the hurricane. But the bulk of the borough’s community of some 7,000 Russian-speaking Jews, most of whom moved there in the last two decades, live in the Midland Beach and New Dorp neighborhoods, near the Lower Bay.
Homes were available and prices were affordable when the émigrés, many of whom had spent some time in Brooklyn’s traditional newcomer neighborhoods, arrived. Those neighborhoods are near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, offering easy commuting to jobs in Brooklyn and Manhattan. And, says Lilly Wajnberg, director of UJA-Federation’s Russian Division, natives of the former Soviet Union “love the ocean.”
Like most Staten Islanders, the Soviet-born residents are mostly middle class; there is little poverty among them but also little affluence. And today they are reeling.
“Jews ranging from the Orthodox to the unaffiliated are hurting on Staten Island, just as they are wherever Sandy did her damage,” says Ruth Lasser, director of communications at the Joan & Alan Berkinow JCC, a half-decade-old building of Jerusalem stone that serves as the borough’s main Jewish focus. “The Jewish community along with every other community on Staten Island has worked unendingly to support the victims.”
The JCC has coordinated the activities on Staten Island of UJA-Federation’s Connect-to-Recovery initiative, a community-wide umbrella outreach effort that partners, on a nonsectarian basis, with such organizations as the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, the New York Legal Assistance Group, F.E.G.S. and JBFCS.
The initiative, patterned after UJA-Federation’s Connect to Care program that grew out of the 2008 recession, offers free food and other household supplies, gift cards and emergency cash assistance, therapy and counseling, and legal advice for obtaining government benefits. The services are available both at the JCC, where large bins are set up in the front lobby to receive donations of clothing and other items, and at mobile vans.
Connect-to-Recovery funds paid for an additional social worker at the JCC to handle the increased post-hurricane workload.
So far, said Yaffa Schonbach, who directs the Connect-to-Recovery activities at the JCC, the initiative has helped “probably thousands” of people. In the first days after the hurricane, she said, volunteers went door-to-door in the worst-hit areas, identifying isolated individuals or families who needed help, and bringing lifesaving supplies.
Today, she says, people in need turn up daily at the JCC or call, many — especially from émigré circles — not knowing where to turn or what public or private benefits are available. Often they’re in tears, said Devorah Weiss, a social worker, who hears their stories. Often, they’re embarrassed to be on the receiving end of handouts. “These people, like everybody else” who lost their prized possessions and familiar way of life, “are devastated. They all feel hopeless, helpless.”
Today, said Debbie Burack, who helped coordinate the JCC’s volunteer effort, the signs of Sandy’s damage are still evident on the streets of Staten Island. On a car-ride through the neighborhoods near the JCC, she points out boarded-up and condemned homes, curbs lined with piles of discarded belongings, sinkholes and second-story-high watermarks and ubiquitous contractor’s vans and For Sale signs on homes where the owners will never live again.
“This is six weeks later,” six weeks after Sandy struck, Burack said. “I actually think this was worse than Katrina,” the Category-5 hurricane that devastated New Orleans in 2005.
Some Staten Island residents, including members of the Jewish community, tell her they want to leave the borough. “They don’t want to go through this again.”
A big need now, for those who still in their homes, is after-school activities for kids; many of the once-flourishing self-defense and ballet schools are out of business.
Some residents have started rebuilding their homes, Burack says. Some can’t. “If you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, you don’t have money to rebuild.”
The “mental health repercussions” of the storm are “huge,” Weiss said; she sees signs of depression.
Rabbi Ivry and the organizers of all the community Chanukah celebrations this week say they saw larger-than-usual crowds.
Rabbi Eli Kogan, leader of Staten Island’s Jewish Russian Learning Center, an outreach organization, says he has noticed an increase in attendance at his programs since the hurricane. They come for moral support, for a sense of community, he said.
The storm, said Ruth Lasser, “coalesced everyone.” The borough’s Jewish groups of every orientation are working together. “The need is so great.”
At the parties, everyone discussed their lives during and after the storm — how they fared, what they’re doing now. “Lots of people were talking about their experiences,” Anatoly Petrikovsky said.
Lilly Wajnberg of UJA-Federation’s Russian Division says many displaced members of Staten Island’s émigré community were reluctant to attend the philanthropy’s Chanukah party. Then she mentioned that information about government benefits would be available.
They decided to come, and were glad they did, Wajnberg said. “They were thrilled. Not only they thanked me, they hugged me and they kissed me.”
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