“Well, it looks like the voluntary evacuations just became mandatory,” I said to the room of Adult Ed students. I was trying, unsuccessfully, to show a film, but it seemed that the lack of success was meant to be – it enabled us to get a head start on the preparations for the approaching hurricane. As a congregation on the South Shore of Long Island, we were quite concerned about the storm. Many of our congregants lived within the evacuated area south of Merrick Road, and the dire warnings had us all frightened.
Over the next 24 hours, we enacted the same emergency action plan we had created during Hurricane Irene. Sadly, we recognized that these types of storms might just increase in frequency in the future. We removed the Torahs from the ark in the sanctuary (the sanctuary is surrounded by beautiful stained glass, which we hoped would remain intact), and stored them in our innermost room. We canceled as many activities as we could. And we started a phone tree of all board members and senior staff calling every single congregant to make sure that they were safe and sound.
Little did we know that soon, we’d have no power, no cell service, and many of our houses and cars would be flooded.
Since Superstorm Sandy, and the subsequent Nor’easter, I have heard innumerable heartbreaking tales. The graceful trees that bring us shade and beauty the rest of the year now became dangerous weapons of destruction. The waters of the ocean that cool us during the summer now rushed into our homes. The sand that we enjoy running our toes through now covered our floors.
Perhaps one of the toughest aspects of the storm for my community has been the simple task of asking for help. As Jews, we are comfortable giving tzedakah and performing good deeds. We enjoy taking care of others. We feel blessed by our bounty, and we make sure to share with others. But it is a different story entirely when WE are the ones who must ask for assistance, or when we must be the recipients of the tzedakah. My congregants are proud middle-class to upper middle-class people, and few if any are used to being on the receiving end of charity.
Yet, somehow, we are getting through it all together. Congregants are checking in on each other, they are housing those who have been displaced, and they are sharing resources and information as they become available. As soon as the synagogue had power and heat restored, we were designated as a warming center, and many folks from within our congregation and from the outside community made themselves at home in our walls. One congregant who is a psychotherapist offered a workshop on trauma and natural disasters. I have been heartened to see all that we can do for each other as we struggle to rebuild.
There are some who have lost everything or nearly everything. There are some who will be out of their homes for months. I hope that our congregational family will be able to live up to its mandate to be a kehillah kedoshah – a holy community – through it all.
We are nothing if not a resilient people. We have known great destruction, challenge, and loss in our history. And we have persevered, rebuilt, and adapted each step along the way. When our homes are destroyed, we build them anew elsewhere. When our synagogues are threatened, we take our Torahs and find safety in another place. When we are afraid, we gather together and find strength amongst friends and family. We know that God is always with us, renewing our sense of courage and enabling us to survive.
I pray that those who are still displaced are able to find a feeling of safety and home amongst their loved ones. I pray that those who have long roads to recovery are never alone on their journeys, and that they find assistance whenever they need it. . I pray that we find ourselves enveloped in a sukkat shalom – a shelter of peace and security.