Chanukah lessons in a post-Sandy world
Late last month, I was in Breezy Point, the isolated beachfront neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., that has become an iconic image for the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Breezy Point was hit full force twice — first by the storm’s surge and then immediately after by a fire that consumed more than 80 houses in one part of the neighborhood.
Nearly a month later, residents could still be found wandering through the burned section, seeking remains from their incinerated homes. Looking around, I could only make out a few recognizable objects: mangled bicycle frames, tangled bedsprings, charred washer-dryer units, the occasional sink or tub. All were covered in rust.
At the late-afternoon hour when I visited, light was fading, and the shadows were getting longer. Earlier in the day, Rockaway Point Boulevard, the main street that runs through Breezy Point, had been packed with recovery and relief traffic — trucks, big and small, many with out-of-state plates — but now the lines of vehicles had thinned.
I’d come to visit this and other Atlantic beach towns thinking about Chanukah, which was soon approaching. Although not many Jews live in Breezy Point proper — it’s known as the whitest part of New York City, and one longtime resident described it to me as “a good Christian community” — still, this town, one of a few that got the worst of Sandy and was blasted by the surge from two sides, sits on the far western edge of the Rockaway Peninsula, a thin spit of land off the coast of Long Island that is home to many, many Jews. I’d also made stops in Far Rockaway, Woodmere and Lawrence earlier in the day, and while they were not as ravaged, it was clear that, throughout the region, celebrating Chanukah will certainly be uniquely challenging this year.
The holiday, which starts on Saturday evening, Dec. 8, is, on one level, a celebration of bringing light into the darkness. This year, light’s preciousness will, no doubt, be acknowledged by all: These days, when the sun goes down, the streets of the Rockaways quickly become dark, empty and cold.
Symbolic rituals may offer only limited comfort to Sandy’s victims. Chanukah candles are traditionally lit at home, and an untold number of residents — thousands of Jews among them — are still not living in their homes, more than a month after the storm. Many whose electrical systems were damaged by flooding during the storm, particularly in the areas I visited, are still without power.
Even many who are in their homes are struggling with extensive and expensive repairs that may not be covered by their insurance policies. Payments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can help, but for people who lost everything on the lower floors of their homes to the storm — couches, tables, chairs, beds, large appliances of all types and one or two cars — the replacement costs can be staggering, possibly unachievable.
And yet, as I talked to people in and around the areas affected by Sandy, they displayed such generosity and resilience that, even in the path of the second-most-destructive weather event in American history, I found myself thinking that Chanukah in these parts of New York and New Jersey may not be quite so dark this year, after all.
In the spirit of Chanukah —– and hinting at five of the holiday’s most salient themes — here are their stories.
Rabbi Zalman Wolowik, the director and spiritual leader of Chabad of the Five Towns, wasn’t available when I traveled through his neighborhood on the day before Thanksgiving. But when I reached him by phone soon after, he told me that the Five Towns will see more public menorah lightings this year than usual. “So we can light up the community,” Wolowik said.
Wolowik has been lighting up — and powering up — his community since the Chabad house reopened just 24 hours after the storm hit.
“I wouldn’t call it a homeless shelter, but it became a place where people could get a meal; recharge their phone, their computer, their iPad; get a warm blanket, clean socks, Pampers, cleaning supplies,” he said. Even now, his Chabad is still distributing items to people who may not have what they need.
Cindy and Peter Grosz, whose devastated house in the Five Towns was being gutted by volunteers when I visited, said they had visited Chabad soon after the storm. There, a tent had been set up in the parking lot, and local merchants were distributing all kinds of necessities for storm victims. The two halogen heating lamps now being used to warm the Groszes’ living room had come from that event.
“It was as if you were buying something,” Wolowik said, “but everything was free, from clothing to household goods.”
Whenever I asked someone involved in the post-Sandy recovery effort about their experiences, more often than not I would hear some variant of this phrase: “I consider myself lucky.”
There was Stuart Slotnick, the managing partner of the New York office of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, a large law firm. He and other lawyers recently held a pop-up legal clinic in Moonachie, N.J., to help members of that hard-hit community fill out forms to send to FEMA.
Among the secretaries who work in his office, one still didn’t have power as of Nov. 21. Another was still heating her apartment by boiling water on the stove.
Slotnick had to move his family out of their house, temporarily. “I only lost power for 10 days, so I consider myself lucky,” he said.
There was Cindy Grosz, the homeowner in the Five Towns, who was visibly distressed by the extent of the damage to the first floor of her home. Volunteers from NECHAMA, a Minnesota-based Jewish disaster response nonprofit, were prying wood panels off the walls of the house and removing the lower sections of the drywall, which was soaked and had begun to grow moldy.
Volunteers had helped Grosz’s husband pile up furniture and other large items, all of it destined for the landfill. Meanwhile, in the living room, Grosz and her husband had salvaged a few items that hadn’t been destroyed by the storm. A lot of it appeared to be glassware.
“I’m trying to be positive,” she said. “Thank God, we’re all alive. It could’ve been worse.”
I met New York State Assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder in Far Rockaway at 10 a.m. the day before Thanksgiving, as he, along with New York City Council Speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, was helping distribute kosher turkeys in plastic shopping bags from the side door of the Jewish Community Council of the Rockaway Peninsula (JCCRP).
Goldfeder, who wore a kippah and a fleece-lined windbreaker, said his family of four had been sleeping “in different beds, on different couches” since the storm. They only got back into their home after Thanksgiving, about a month after Sandy struck.
And yet, because Goldfeder represents a district that includes most of the Rockaway peninsula — 80 percent of it, he said, had been damaged either by storm or fire — he, too, considers himself lucky.
“I think about what I’m going through, and it just means I have to work harder to make sure everyone else is taken care of,” he said.
The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty helped to organize the turkey giveaway, one of many efforts it has undertaken since the storm; William Rapfogel, the organization’s CEO, was on hand, as was Lisa Gaon, the director of Met Council’s Jewish Community Network.
Gaon said she had been barred from her apartment in Long Beach — the building’s electrical system sustained significant damage — for more than three weeks and didn’t expect to be back in for another month. In the meantime, she and her 6-year-old daughter are staying with friends.
“The biggest issue is the kids,” Gaon told me, “keeping them in schools and getting them to school.”
The school bus that normally picked up her daughter won’t come to the house where they are staying, across the border in Nassau County. So Gaon drives her daughter — using a loaner car from Met Council because she lost hers in the storm — to and from school every day. And instead of working out of Met Council’s main offices in Manhattan, Gaon said she had been working out of the Rockaway Peninsula location since the storm.
“I’m an easy one; I only have one kid,” Gaon said. “It’s hard for a lot of families. I don’t even talk about myself, because everybody else has it so much worse.”
The lucky ones know they’re lucky because they’re meeting people who’ve lost everything — people like Janis.
I met Janis, a middle-aged white woman with a gravelly voice who wouldn’t give her last name, at the Habitat for Humanity tent in Breezy Point.
Janis has spent summers at Breezy Point for 57 years and has been living there year-round since 2001. She had come to Breezy Point to check on her house, which she said had been pushed about 15 feet off its foundation by the storm surge, out onto the sidewalk.
“We’ll survive,” she said as she handed out chocolate-covered marshmallows to the other members of the Habitat team. “We’ve got Jim.”
“Jim” is James Killoran, executive director of the Westchester, N.Y., chapter of Habitat for Humanity, which has been on the ground in Breezy Point since Nov. 2, just four days after the storm hit.
Janis’ home is sure to be demolished — she knows this — and there’s not a lot that Killoran and his volunteers can do for her. Killoran stayed upbeat, though.
“Just being here is a victory,” he said. “It’s not about the walls, it’s about each other.”
Norma Silva, a member of the Habitat chapter’s board who was spending her 18th day in Breezy Point, reinforced that message — that whatever help she and the other volunteers can offer, even if it isn’t much, is really appreciated by residents.
“Some of them, I get their name and address, and then I ask them, ‘What is it that you need to be done?’ All of a sudden they just start crying,” Silva said. “Because they don’t even know where to start.”
So far, Habitat volunteers — a group that here often includes some experienced responders from Israel — have mostly been focused on clearing homes of flooded belongings and removing the lower drywall to expose the wooden studs of a house. It’s as if everyone in the region is throwing away half — or more — of their belongings: I saw piles of toys and furniture and sodden boxes at the ends of driveways, and one large public park on the peninsula had been converted into a temporary landfill. Among the first things Killoran brought to Breezy Point were 500 boxes of heavy-duty plastic garbage bags, knowing they’d be needed.
In normal years at Chanukah, these people might have been considering what trinket or video game to buy for their friends and family. This year, some organizations are making efforts to help people replace at least some of what they have lost and offer a few gifts, as well.
At the “shopping” night organized by Chabad of the Five Towns, every kid who came left with a watch. (“There was enough disorientation that they didn’t even know what time zone they were in,” Wolowik said.) At the JCCRP in Far Rockaway when I was there, a couple of staffers from a state senator’s office in a nearby district showed up with a dozen kosher turkeys and about as many comforters — all new, still in their original packaging.
People are in need of food and new blankets, Met Council’s Gaon told me, but that’s only the beginning of what will be required.
“Nobody has beds; nobody has a table to sit at when they move back in; nobody has a chair to sit on,” she said. “Real basic, basic stuff.”
The recovery from Sandy — and, eventually, the rebuilding — will cost tens of billions of dollars.
As of Nov. 30, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was asking for $36.8 billion for his state, and New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg each had asked for more than $40 billion in federal emergency assistance for New York state.
The sense from those working in the trenches is, however, that those funds — and the millions being directed from Jewish organizations to the region — won’t be enough for many victims.
Wolowik outlined some of the requests he’s received since the storm: Requests for funds from people whose homeowner’s insurance policy doesn’t cover flood damage, from people whose automobile insurance won’t cover the cost of replacing their lost cars, from people who don’t have enough money to pay their deductibles.
“What people need most is financial aid,” Wolowik said. “With that they can do whatever is needed.”
Chanukah begins at sundown on Saturday, Dec. 8.
To learn more about the organizations responding to Sandy in New York's Rockaway Peninsula, visit:
- The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty
- Chabad of the Five Towns
- Habitat for Humanity, Westchester County Chapter
For those in or near the affected areas, the UJA-Federation of New York has compiled a list of volunteer opportunities here:
For an in depth list of 63 synagogues affected by Hurricane Sandy, visit The Forward here: