South Brooklyn Still Seeking Shelter From The Storm

Three months after Sandy, the Jewish institutions there are struggling for normalcy.

01/29/13
Staff Writer
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It’s cold and dark down one flight of stairs in the largest synagogue in Seagate. Rabbi Chaim Brikman, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary who has served as spiritual leader of Congregation Kneses Israel in the Brooklyn enclave for two decades, is standing in a corner of the shul’s basement on a recent morning, in front of exposed, dust-covered brick walls and a pile of assorted refuge.

“This was my office,” he says. He points to a spot on the bare floor where his desk, his secretary’s desk and some file cabinets once stood.

“The door was here,” Rabbi Brikman says. “A bookcase was here,” along one side wall. An empty wooden case stands in front of the far wall. “The Torah ark was here.

“Notice the past tense — was,” Rabbi Brikman says.

The basement of Kneses Israel, a few blocks from the Atlantic shore in the Brooklyn neighborhood that bore the brunt of Superstorm Sandy three months ago this week, is a mess. The seats where worshipers met for prayer services, the tables in an adjacent room where yeshiva students from the Satmar community met were all ruined by the water that flooded the space. Also gone are the bathrooms, but, eerily, a “men’s bathroom” sign remains on the wall, unscathed by the deluge. There’s no heat, no electricity in the basement.

Upstairs, it’s better. There’s power in the main sanctuary, where a daily minyan continues.

A few miles away, in Brighton Beach, the situation is similar.

Gennady Favel, a board member of the Mazel Day School, shows a visitor through the school’s corner building and through the next-door Hebrew Alliance-F.R.E.E. Synagogue, where some Mazel classes meet.

Downstairs, where the waters of Sandy rushed in, nothing remains but ceiling-high metal room dividers, and boxes of donated books and other school supplies. Upstairs, where there was no damage, there are packed but quiet classrooms in the day school, and a functioning synagogue in the Hebrew Alliance.

A few blocks away, in Coney Island, things are even bleaker. On Ocean Parkway, the Jewish Center of Brighton Beach, a landmark congregation that has served for seven years as the base of the RAJE (Russian American Jewish Experience) outreach organization, is temporarily closed.

The building, whose first floor and basement suffered major damage in the storm, is still without utilities. Until the building is renovated, worship services are taking place at members’ homes and at other congregations in the area, and RAJE’s various educational and social events are also meeting at other sites in Brooklyn.

While the entire Greater New York area felt the fury of Sandy, South Brooklyn — along with similar low-lying areas like Manhattan’s Battery Park City, Queens’ Far Rockaway, the Five Towns and Long Beach in Long Island, and Staten Island’s south shore — was especially hard hit. Countless homes and Jewish institutions were damaged by the water and winds, leaving hundreds of members of the Jewish community temporarily (or in some cases, still) homeless; many lost their businesses. A disproportionate number of Sandy’s Jewish victims are emigres, from families with roots in the former Soviet Union, as southern Brooklyn has long been home to newcomers from the onetime USSR.

And while many Jewish institutions suffered extensive damage in the storm, those along the water’s edge are among those still, literally, picking up the pieces.

“The effects are not over yet,” Rabbi Brikman says. “Many, many shuls are dealing with the problems.”

“There are institutions that are reeling,” families living in homes whose walls are lined with mold, other families still living in friends’ cramped basements, says William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.

“Sadly, because of the Washington, D.C. delays in passing [storm-recovery] funding for New York, the [recovery] activities are far behind where they should be.”

The continuing problems in southern Brooklyn are “very representative of those [Jewish institutions] in Zone A, those areas that had the [most severe] impact,” says Rapfogel, whose organization focuses primarily on the financial and psychological needs of families. “There still are people out there who need help.”

Other Jewish institutions there still dealing with Sandy are the Manhattan Beach Jewish Center, the Chabad Neshama Center and the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island. But all of them have started to offer their pre-storm arrays of programs.

The JCC’s main offices were located near Seagate. “Completely destroyed by the storm,” says Rabbi Moshe Wiener, executive director. The flood caused the concrete first-floor to buckle. “Also closed … was our ‘Coney Island Seaside Senior Center’ on the second floor.”

The JCC staff is “now mostly deployed in make-shift offices at five different sites throughout southern Brooklyn,” including a trailer inside Seagate that handles social services programs, Rabbi Wiener says.

A drive last week along Seagate’s Atlantic Avenue, where homes have the ocean for backyards, reveals the damage — piles of discarded goods at curbside, empty lots where homes once stood, houses whose empty rooms offer an unimpeded view from the front window to the rear window. Sand is everywhere, carried inland by the surging currents, and not yet removed.

All these homes, many where Jewish families lived, are deserted, says Julie Greenberg, a Kiev-born Seagate resident. Verizon has yet to restore phone service to anyone in the gated neighborhood, she says.

How do residents communicate with the outside?

“Cellphones,” Greenberg says.

Representatives of Kneses Israel, the Mazel Day School and RAJE say each of their institutions has started a fundraising campaign to renovate its building; each institution plans to rebuild; like most area residents, not one of them had sufficient flood insurance. All of them estimate their damage in the high six-figure range.

Seagate, flanked on the north and south by water, was a particularly inviting target. “The water came from both sides,” Rabbi Brikman says. He and his wife, Rivkah, and daughter, Chana, stayed in their two-story home, as the storm approached, to tend to the Seagate residents who did not heed the neighborhood’s mandatory evacuation order. The rabbi says he lost about 10,000 books – his entire collection of holy texts – in the flooding. In the now-sand-logged side lot of his home are piles of large garbage bags. “This is my library,” awaiting the burial that sifrei kodesh deserve, he says.

Seagate is home to three smaller congregations and a recuperation home for new mothers — all damaged, Rabbi Brikman says. “They are all being repaired now.” He tells of one congregation that stored its Torah scrolls, for safety, in a fireproof safe. “Fireproof does not mean waterproof.” The scrolls were ruined.

The educational activities coordinated by the rabbi at the synagogue, and the outreach events run from his family’s home, are on hold until the fundraising drive (thebigshul.org) covers enough expenses.

With much of its classroom space ruined, the Mazel School, which resumed its pre-nursery-to-sixth-grade classes for most of its 130 students within two weeks after the storm, has turned to empty classrooms in the borough. Grades 3-6 now meet in rented space at the Manhattan Beach Jewish Center.

The school’s fundraising drive (donatemazel.com) has already brought in more than $30,000, says Favel, a native of Odessa whose daughter attends the school.

The day school was founded in 2002 by parents in émigré families who wanted a Jewish education for their young children that would meet the needs of people from the former Soviet Union.

After the storm, these families helped to clean up the school, just as hundreds of RAJE members volunteered to bail water out of the Jewish Center of Brighton Beach.

“We were rebuilding from the first day,” Favel says. “Because this is a community school — it was built by the parents — the parents feel responsible for it.”

RAJE, an independent outreach organization founded by St. Petersburg-born Rabbi Mordechai Tokarsky, offers its own leadership training program and a series of ongoing events; it may convert its headquarters in the eight-decades-old, four-story synagogue into a community Jewish Center, along the lines of the JCC in Manhattan, says Esther Lamm, director of development. As envisioned, it would house a kosher café and a library; it would serve, she says, as a daily gathering place for young Russian-speaking Jews.

The future, Lamm says, depends on the success of RAJE’s fundraising (rebuildraje.com) and FEMA’s decision regarding payment for the synagogue building’s losses.

The fundraising of Kneses Israel, the Mazel Day School and RAJE is complicated by the reduced income of many of their erstwhile supporters; many families are paying their own renovation expenses, and many breadwinners have lost their jobs.

Some residents of the flooded areas have left for good, preferring safer — inland — places to live.

In Seagate, “a few have left,” Rabbi Brikman says. Most residents of the neighborhood say they will return when their homes become habitable, they tell him.

“I encourage them to rebuild,” he says. In the wake of 9/11, he asks, who knows where is safe. “You can’t run.”

The Brikmans, the rabbi says, are staying in Seagate. “We’re here till Moshiach comes.”

steve@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

01/31/2013 - 11:30

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