September 20, 2018

Irma and A Short Story About Goodness

This guest post is from Adam Weinberg, a dear friend and collaborator on Shabbat Tent. His story is a profound  lesson about how goodness changes the world, one family at a time.

You should not place a stumbling block before a person who is blind. It’s a well known commandment found in the Hebrew Bible.  It is found in a portion of the Bible called Kedoshim, most commonly translated as “holy ones”.  I thought about this idea several times while preparing for Hurricane Irma, while running away from Hurricane Irma, while being taken care of during Hurricane Irma, and while on my return home from Hurricane Irma.  I thought about this idea both for its obvious implications as a prohibition from taking sinister action to hurt or deceive someone, as well as its proactive positive inverse — You should find and remove any stumbling block already before a person who is blind.  

Hurricane Irma, and the media attention surrounding its long march towards the islands and the main land made many of us blind. Some physically, but most of us emotionally and psychologically. Here is one story, about individuals, families, businesses, and major corporations (mostly) removing stumbling blocks, doing good and being holy ones for us.  

Hurricane Irma is Coming

My family and I were visiting friends and seeing the band Phish in Denver at Dick’s Sporting Good Arena over Labor Day weekend.  We flew home to Miami Beach on Monday September 4th.   When we landed, a text message awaited us from our Denver friends.  It was screen shot of Governor Rick Scott’s state-of-emergency message that had been announced while we were comfortably experiencing the miracle of flight.  My wife and I shrugged it off.  It’s Miami in September.  Storms develop, threaten, and then sputter out somewhere.  My wife and I both lived through Hurricane Andrew.  Whatever Irma was would be fine.  Later that evening I went to our neighborhood Publix grocery store to restock the refrigerator after our vacation.  Publix was already in some kind of minor hysteria.  Shelves being emptied, friends and neighbors stopped in the aisles discussing escape plans.  It all seemed a bit much considering the projections I had googled didn’t have it making landfall in South Florida for nearly a week; a long time in the uncertain path of a Hurricane.  But it was hard not to absorb some of that frantic energy so I went to the water aisle to stock up.  

When I got to the aisle a Publix employee pointed out to me that Publix was discounting its water.  A case of 24 bottles of 16.9 oz water was on sale for $2.49.  By comparison I know friends who paid $15-20 for the same thing at other stores or through Amazon once everyone shifted into Hurricane preparation mode.  Publix was being good.  Disaster had not struck, and it was at least six days away, but Publix immediately removed any obstacle to acquiring safe drinking water for a price nearly anyone could afford [as a note, in the future Publix should limit the amount of water you can buy under such circumstances to ensure it doesn’t all sell out too quickly, giving as many people as possible access to these deals].

That Monday night I tried to read as many models on Irma as were available online. National Hurricane Center, Wunderground, the-never-wrong-European Model.  A friend posted the website windy.com which has this absolutely beautiful animated map of the world and its wind, ocean, and wave patterns.  You can allow the site to play out several days of ocean activity.  It’s really stunning to watch, so I just sat there watching it as it demonstrated Irma slamming into Miami. I looked at flights to Baltimore, MD where my closest friends outside of Miami live.  Tickets were reasonable at $180 round trip.  But when would Irma really hit?  I went to sleep, no tickets purchased.  By the time I looked at flights again Tuesday morning, the certainty of a direct hit with which the local and State governments and the media spoke had been ratcheted up to an “11”.  Plane tickets to Baltimore were now either sold out or $800 round trip with a stop. My wife and I are fortunate to have three kids.  That’s $4,000 and a serious stumbling block.

The Road Trip Begins

I spent most of the work day on Tuesday looking at hotels in Orlando and Atlanta trying to predict what days we would need them for.  Both cities were quick to jump on Miami’s panic and instituted hardline cancellation policies, giving those who booked on Tuesday afternoon for a storm that might hit on Saturday, or Sunday, or maybe even Monday only a day to cancel.  Basically take your money, throw it in a garbage bag, and set it on fire.  A coworker’s sister works for Marriott and shared with us her “friends” corporate code.  This got us a discount and a later cancellation policy.  I booked rooms for myself and a friend.  About thirty-minutes later I called my parents and sister.  They wanted rooms too in case they began to panic in a similar fashion to myself.  I went back to Marriott.com, entered the “friends” code.  It was no longer enabled.  No more corporate discounts or later cancellation terms.

A good friend said to me during the whole Irma experience that he was unaware of a single couple that didn’t get into a major disagreement over how to deal with Irma. Disagreements which often spread beyond Irma.  By the time I had hotel rooms booked I had one foot in the car; road-trip ready.   My wife on the other hand was spared the anxiety gene, and has a work ethic only matched by her father.  She works at a major hospital on the water in Miami Beach and was on the schedule until Friday. We fought about it.  Without much consulting with my wife, I had agreed to hit the road on Wednesday with our closest friends in Miami.  My wife was not leaving the hospital that quickly.  We fought some more.  Eventually, we reached a compromise.  My wife would work a half-day Thursday. Ensure her patients were taken care of and prepped or evacuated ahead of the storm.  

The first three-and-a-half hours of the drive from Miami to Orlando were fun and the roads generally smooth with short periods of slow down.  This kids drew pictures, watched The Lion King and generally enjoyed themselves.  About 40 miles south of Orlando the real traffic began. Standstill.  Cars began using the shoulder as an additional lane.  I made some comment about the selfishness of people who clog the shoulder in situations of potential need.  My wife decided a better approach would be to assume that anyone speeding down the shoulder was racing to save someone’s life.   This became the new vocalized motto for shoulder-drivers “Save your life!”  Ok, good.

It took another three hours to go those last 40 miles, but we made it to the hotel, a Marriott.  Our plan was to stay in Orlando for one night and then head to Atlanta as early as possible the next morning.  At check-in another Miami evacuee was noticeably anxious.  She explained to the front desk that she had only booked a room through Sunday morning and now the storm had slowed down and was projected to pummel Orlando on Sunday or Monday.  The two women working the front desk responded as perfectly as any two humans could have.  They assured her that many people were booking, cancelling, rebooking, and on and on.  They would find her additional room nights at their hotel. If they couldn’t guarantee it at their hotel, they would find her a room at another hotel.  If they couldn’t find her a room at another hotel they would make sure she was safe in their hotel, even if it meant getting creative with the sleeping situation.  Furthermore, if she ended up booking additional nights at another Marriott and then needed to cancel, the general cancellation terms were waived.  Basically book whatever you want, cancel whenever you want, and you won’t be charged unless you actually sleep in a hotel room.  These women saw an individual who was scared, and they promised her an environment that would protect her while making the financial burden as minimal an issue as possible.  Goodness. Hotels redeemed.

My kids went swimming in the hotel pool.  My wife and I committed to waking up at 4:30am to head to Atlanta. I studied waze and google maps trying to make sense of each map’s inability to accurately increase the estimated arrival time based on current traffic issues.  What I learned was that the estimated arrival time shown in these apps during such complicated traffic data situations is almost always wrong, but there is an easy way to figure out the truth.  If you zoom in on each current traffic incident, each app will show an estimated delay for that specific incident.  Add up all those estimated delays and tack it on to the overall travel time given.  For example, at approximately 2am Friday morning, both google maps and waze predicted that it would take 8 hours to get from Orlando to Atlanta.  There were still a few areas of “red” traffic incidents even at 2am, each with a delay of approximately 30 minutes.  Therefore, the real travel time at 2am; assuming no more traffic incidents occurred, would have been 9 hours.  If it wasn’t obvious from my 2am data set, sleep was not coming easily.  

I texted my sister who had just arrived in Atlanta after driving 19 hours straight from Miami.  I expressed my trepidation for the early morning journey.  I made my case to take I-95 instead of the Turnpike and I-75.  While I-95 was longer in mileage, it had experienced less traffic incidents the day before.  It didn’t have service stations built into the highway which were causing major slowdowns on the Turnpike and I-75.   I committed that if at 4:30am there were already traffic incidents on the Turnpike and I-75 and none on I-95, 95 would be the route.

Meanwhile, the hotel was doing more good.  They waived their normal pet prohibition and many guests were grateful.  Our neighbor across the hall had brought his dog and then apparently went for a very long walk or was deaf.  The dog barked incessantly most of the night. Days after the storm I listened to an interview with a man who remained in the middle Keys during the storm.  When Irma had passed, he went walking around his island and found more of his neighbors’ pets roaming around than his actual neighbors.  I tried to sleep, but it never came. 4:30am. I checked the map apps.  The Turnpike and I-75 already had a few small incidents showing up.  95 was clear sailing.  Nonetheless, all the apps still suggested taking the Turnpike.  I was too sleep deprived to battle the all powerful Waze and its handler Lord Google.  We abandoned the I-95 plan without much debate.

The first few hours, with my wife at the wheel, were smooth sailing.  Some back roads provided beautiful scenery, even if that scenery was too often speckled with confederate flags.  There was a lot of chatter on line about gas shortages.  My wife and I talked about how amazing truck drivers are. While nearly a million residents were fleeing north, the men and women who drive oil tankers were hauling up and down the highways ensuring gas was readily available.  Somewhere around Perry, GA we stopped.  Refill the tank, empty the bladder.  A tanker was at this particular stop refueling the station.  I went over to the men at the tanker and thanked them for what they were doing.  They seemed genuinely grateful for the recognition and we chatted briefly.  One of the men was from a town in Ft. Lauderdale just about 20 miles north of our family’s home.  These guys were goodness.  As stressful as it was, ultimately it’s easy to run away.  It’s much harder to spend days on the road, away from family and friends, to ensure everyone else has the fuel to keep running.

The overly simplistic formula I had devised in the middle of the night was proving true.  The map apps kept pretending that it was an 8-hour drive to Atlanta, but each traffic incident delay needed to be added to that base number.  About 10 hours into the drive, somewhere north of Macon, GA and among beautiful back roads and less attractive confederate flags, I decided we should fly back to Miami.  Most major airlines were now in redemption mode — offering direct flights from Atlanta to the Miami area for around $100 per ticket.  I booked five flights with cancellation insurance for Monday.  I then began the process of trying to find someone who would drive our car back.

Goodness began spilling out in all directions

We had hotel reservations at the Marriott Suites in Midtown Atlanta for the next three nights.  We also had the option to stay at the home of my sister’s best friend from college.  We went with the home.  I called the hotel to cancel.  All reservations were now fully refundable until 2am the night/morning of check-in.  The woman on the phone encouraged me to keep my remaining nights, and decide day by day.  Even if I forgot to cancel, she assured me, they would make sure the room was refunded if I hadn’t actually checked in. More goodness.  We arrived at our friend’s home after about 13 hours of driving, and the goodness began spilling out in all directions.

The Robkin-Salzberg clan have a large but modest home.  Their home exists to be used not be seen.  The only sacred elements in their home are the people, and not any of its things. By the time we arrived, rooms had already been set up for my wife and I, our kids, an amazing couple from Venice, FL, my sister, and her friend from Miami.  If more people showed up invited or otherwise, they were clearly welcome.  There was a ceramics art studio in the basement. Musical instruments lined the walls in another part of the basement.  Food was being prepared in the kitchen.  Enough for twenty people.  We were all instructed not to lift a finger. They would take care of us.  

Stories began to spread throughout the various communities in Atlanta who were housing Florida evacuees.  One couple had a baby in their hosts’ home, and their hosts were now planning the bris for that couple’s new baby boy.  By the time night fell Friday evening my wife and I were still shedding layers of stress but our kids were on vacation.

Irma kept shifting west.  Miami would be spared the worst, but many islands had already been hit hard and Naples and Tampa were now in the direct path.  Our flights for Monday were cancelled and automatically rebooked for Thursday.  If you recall my wife’s insistence on working as close to impact as possible earlier in this tale, you can intuit that returning four days after the storm would be unacceptable.  Drive or fly?  To drive meant to wait until Tuesday, once the storm was done with Florida and Georgia.  Roads would be a mess with debris. Gas tankers wouldn’t be able start refueling until Tuesday. The storm went up the West Coast of the State, but it was so large that East Coast cities like Jacksonville still flooded and suffered wide spread power outages.  Leaving Tuesday seemed like a bad idea.  I started calling Delta a few times a day to see if any earlier flights; perhaps Tuesday night or Wednesday were available.

Meanwhile, the Robkin-Salzberg clan and their guests continued breathe, eat and sleep goodness.  My close friend, and local mayor back home, had chosen to stay put and hang with the police and other first responders.  He was updating me.  Flooding, damage, but overall gratitude that Miami had dodged a major bullet.  I was probably one of a hundred or more people reaching out to him for updates. After the storm he went by my house. Took pictures. Told me it would all be good.  He was goodness.

Another friend back home is a news reporter.  He had to report in this thing.  Not because it provides some rush like sky diving, or because it’s actually safe.  It’s scary as all hell.  It’s completely not safe for all the reasons these same reporters tell you it’s not safe while they dodge debris and get strewn about by 100 mph gusts of wind.  But he did it. He told me a few days later that if his reporting provided advice or calm to even one person that otherwise would have done something to jeopardize their own safety that it was worth it.  He was goodness.

I kept checking on line for updates and predictions from friends. The same friend who posted that mesmerizing site windy.com now posted a note about a former student of his named David who escaped South Florida for Atlanta but now had no ride back.  I asked for his number and reached out.  I told David we weren’t sure if we’d be driving back or flying but either way he’d have a ride with us or he could take our car.  Win win. Plan in place.

Atlanta was great for the kids.  Young kids dealing with the fallout from a major hurricane is not ideal.  This seemed better. We went to parks, the aquarium, played music, made short films.  Over five and half days in Atlanta we ate only one meal not prepared by the Robkins-Salzbergs.  We went out with friends in the City.  After ordering I realized I had forgotten to get anything for our youngest son.  I went back to the counter, placed the order and took out my wallet.  The woman behind the counter refused my money.  She had overheard our kids talking about getting to go home, and decided we had enough to deal with.  The forgotten sandwich order would be on her.  I insisted to pay.  She refused to accept.  Goodness.

Tuesday morning our best friends, who had also escaped to Atlanta, made a run for it back home.  I wasn’t so adventurous and decided to keep looking for earlier flights. If that failed, I resigned myself to Wednesday driving, hoping gas and road conditions would be more predictable by then.  Tuesday night I called Delta back and was connected with an agent named Angie.  Angie was empathy incarnate.  She knew why I was calling without me really having to explain anything.  She told me that everyone she was speaking with was conflicted on how to get home and seats were being booked, cancelled, rebooked, and on and on.  If she kept refreshing her seating map occasionally new seats would become available. Finding five seats on an earlier flight would be challenging but she told me she would stay on the phone with me as long as I wanted her efforts to endure.  She also told me that if I wanted to cancel my Thursday flights in order to drive, all tickets were now fully refundable. Goodness.  

At one point Angie had three seats held for me to Ft. Lauderdale for Wednesday morning.  I could send my wife and two younger kids home first.  She wanted to keep trying.  Refresh the page.  Try a new flight. Refresh.  Check Miami airport instead of Ft Lauderdale. Check West Palm Beach. Refresh.  Debate the usefulness of this exercise.  Refresh. Double refreshing. Eventually Angie had four seats held on a Wednesday afternoon flight to Miami.  Book it.  I could easily find a single seat on another flight. By the time Angie had entered my family’s flight information into the seating manifest she had grabbed a fifth seat and had spent nearly an hour on the phone with me to accomplish the task.  My wife could now get back to work a day earlier.  We could all fly together for about the same cost as gas, food and hotel would cost to make the drive over two days.  David would drive the car back.  Good.

The last thing my grandmother ran away from was Hitler.

We got home early Wednesday evening. Power had just been restored after being out for close to five days.  My in-laws were still without.  They would stay with us.  My father-in-law had already started the clean up before we got home.  Goodness.  My parents escaped South Florida to Atlanta with my 95 year old grandmother.  The last thing she ran away from was Hitler.  From Atlanta, my mother took my Grandmother to New York to visit my aunt and uncle, her other grandkids and great grandkids. Goodness.  My father and sister each drove home solo.  Not easy after absorbing a week of stress.  Impressive goodness.

Then came Jose. The islands got it again.  As I finish this, Puerto Rico is being pummeled by Maria and Mexico is suffering from another major earthquake.  We were fortunate – both because Irma wasn’t a direct hit and because we had the means and finances to run. Others were not.  At home we helped friends and neighbors with clean up.  We had countless conversations with those around us to make sure they had everything they needed.  The local synagogues (and I assume churches and mosques) provided meals, places to stay and around the clock support. After a few days home, a very common story on line and in the media, revolved around looting and disgruntled residents still without power.  I get it. These are real issues.  But I had just been the recipient of so much good, from people who were not police officers, fire fighters, FEMA workers or other first responders – all who deserve high praise as well.  The goodness my family and I received came mostly from people who removed stumbling blocks – physical, emotional, psychological, and financial – simply because they wanted to do something good.  I’m going to focus on that for now.  

If you want to support some charities that I believe are doing the most good they can for Hurricane related challenges, check the grid and feel free to add your suggestions: CHARITY GRID

Love and thanks to Michelle, Simone, Lev, (little) Shai, Sara, Mom, Dad, Grandma Sylvia, Zeity Jack, Safta Rachel, Grandma Frances, Amy, Ben, Ellie, Ari, (Big) Shai, Judy, Navit, Ori, Kol, Havi, Renee, Marc, Chloe, David, Bruce, Pete, Luciana, Gabe, Rosh, Angie, Moshe, hotel folks, restaurant folks, oil tank drivers, the guy at that gas station in no-wheres-ville-Georgia who offered to fill my tires with air, and I’m sure a lot of other folks who deserve it.

______________

Adam Weinberg is a concert producer, promoter, part time guitar player, and occasional writer living in Surfside, FL with his awesome wife and kids.

Hurricane Harvey fundraising for Jewish Houston just getting started

The sanctuary of the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Screenshot from Vimeo

More than 1,000 Jewish families were confirmed as displaced from their homes in Houston by Hurricane Harvey, the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston estimated this month, with that number expected to more than double.

The devastating floods launched a national fundraising effort by Jewish groups to spur the recovery process. As the Jewish year drew to a close in mid-September, fundraising was well underway, but it continued to be outpaced by needs and hampered by the shrinking media attention, which shifted from Hurricane Harvey in southwest Texas to Hurricane Irma in Florida and the Caribbean. Even if fundraising goals are met, community members in Houston expect the recovery to last for months or more.

[Hurricane Harvey: How you can help]

After Harvey wrought catastrophic damage on Houston’s Jewish community, the Jewish Federations of North America put out a call asking for donations to the recovery effort that inevitably would follow.

“Especially in Los Angeles, people care about this,” said Jay Sanderson, CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which raised $550,000 for victims of Harvey. “But the further and further away we get from the hurricane itself, the further people will feel from it. And what we do know is this is a long road that Houston has to deal with.”

Jewish communities from across the continent answered the Federations’ pleas, sending in $12 million by mid-September to a Federation fund set up for the recovery. But three weeks after the storm, the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston still aimed to raise another $18 million to meet the needs of its community.

After Irma brought flooding and power outages to Florida in early September, the Jewish Federations of North America launched a companion effort to raise funds for its victims. However, though Florida’s Jewish population is about 10 times the size of Houston’s, Jewish communities and institutions in the Sunshine State were spared the same catastrophic damage.   

During and immediately after Hurricane Harvey, the Houston Federation worked closely with local Jewish organizations in the city, including the six major institutions that flooded: Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform temple; Congregation Beth Yeshurun, a Conservative synagogue; United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston (UOS); the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Houston; the Torah Outreach Resource Centre of Houston (TORCH); and Seven Acres Jewish Senior Care Services, a residential facility for the elderly.

Despite flooding at the homes of its top leaders, the Houston Federation partnered with Houston’s Jewish Family Service and Chabad to deploy aid.

Operating through its Texas regional headquarters in Houston, Chabad also launched a separate aid and recovery effort as record-setting rainfall lashed southwest Texas from Aug. 25-27.

Rabbi Barry Gelman of the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston in the main sanctuary of the shul, which flooded during Hurricane Harvey.

During the first days of the disaster, Chabad arranged to ship tens of thousands of pounds of kosher meat to the Houston Jewish community, which is concentrated in the hardest-hit areas of the city and was devastated by feet of floodwater that often carried sewage and other waste.

By mid-September, the religious outreach group had collected approximately $800,000 in cash donations and donated goods worth hundreds of thousands more for relief efforts in the Houston and Corpus Christi regions, according to Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff, Chabad’s Hurricane Harvey relief coordinator. The funds are being used for storm cleanup, trucking of goods, emergency assistance, temporary housing, a food and supplies pantry, a Chabad command and call center and more, he wrote in a Sept. 17 email.

“We are focusing as well on the emotional and spiritual recovery of the community through uplifting and educational programming addressing the aftermath of Harvey” at 11 Houston-area Chabad centers and another in Corpus Christi, Lazaroff wrote in the email.

Meanwhile, Sanderson wrote in a community-wide email that the money raised by L.A.’s Federation would go to cash assistance for victims, extended day camp programs for children, congregational grants, volunteer coordination, counseling and mental health services, and mapping the community and its needs.

“We need to be invested in our brothers and sisters in Houston in the long term, not just in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane,” Sanderson told the Journal.

A set of videos produced for the Houston Federation documented the flood damage at the six Jewish institutions washed out by floods.

“It’s devastating,” Bruce Levy, president of Congregation Beth Israel, told the videographer, standing in a hallway of the flooded synagogue. “There’s so much destruction, so much loss. But we have a proud and hardworking community, and we’re going to build it back up again. That’s what I know.”

Each video ends with the same fundraising pitch, the words appearing over images of buildings destroyed and Jewish texts soaked beyond repair.

“No other Jewish community in the U.S. has witnessed such widespread devastation,” the boldfaced captions read. “Harvey’s catastrophic destruction has left Houston’s Jewish community in jeopardy. We need to rebuild. We cannot do it alone. We need your help.”

Hurricane Irma tears through Florida: Here’s how to help

Property damage is seen at a mobile home park in Naples, Fla., on Sept. 11. Photo by Stephen Yang/Reuters

Two weeks after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston with historic floods, Hurricane Irma tore through Florida, delivering devastating wind and rain and forcing millions to evacuate. Though flooding did not reach the same catastrophic proportions as in Houston, the storm nonetheless left much of Florida’s Jewish population of 655,000 without basic necessities such as food, power and fuel.

Rabbi Levik Dubov of Chabad of O’Town in downtown Orlando spoke with the Journal Sept. 11 as family and friends cooked a meal on a portable stove in his home. Without power, they had to use up as much perishable food as they could before it spoiled.

Dubov said he had spent the morning checking in on friends and community members to make sure they were safe. Across the state, Chabad houses have become de facto storm relief centers.

“If they need food, if they need shelter, if they need fuel, if they need resources, we’re there to help,” Dubov said. “It’s whatever people need, and right now it seems food is the biggest thing.”

Click here to learn more about Chabad’s efforts in Florida and donate.

Chabad was among the Jewish organizations rushing to help communities impacted by Hurricane Irma. 3 On Sept. 11, more than two dozen Chabad houses planned to open their doors to community members in need of a dinner meal.

“People right now, they just want to have a sense of morale, a sense of togetherness,” Dubov said. “Food provides that.”

After Hurricane Harvey, Jewish Federations across the country opened fundraising pages to help storm victims. But as the extent of the damage in Florida became clear, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles extended its fundraising effort to include victims of Hurricane Irma.

Alana Weiner, vice president of media relations and strategy at the Los Angeles Federation, said funds raised through the Federation’s website would go to victims of each hurricane as needed.

Click here to learn more about Federation’s efforts.

Jacob Solomon, CEO of Greater Miami Jewish Federation, said while Jewish communal structures escaped serious damage for the most part, the lack of a functioning power grid posed a serious challenge.

“It looks like there’s relatively little structural damage to communal institutions,” he told the Journal. “The big issue right now is it’s something like 80 percent of Miami-Dade County is without power.”

In Atlanta, home to the closest large Jewish community to Florida, nearly a dozen synagogues opened their doors to Jews fleeing the hurricane.

“We were starting to get inquiries about Irma — two, three, four people asking about coming for Shabbat. We realized this is going to be a real need, and instead of dealing with a one-off, let’s open our community,” Rabbi Adam Starr of Young Israel of Toco Hills, one of the participating synagogues, told JTA.

The synagogues’ efforts were supported by thousands of kosher meals from the Orthodox Union.

Click here to learn more about disaster relief from the Orthodox Union.

A number of Jewish disaster relief organizations in the United States and Israel quickly moved to expand efforts launched in the wake of Hurricane Harvey to include victims in Florida.

Less than two weeks after dispatching an emergency response team to Houston, the volunteer group Israel Rescue Coalition sent 15 medics to help in Florida. Meanwhile, NECHAMA: Jewish Response to Disaster prepared to deploy a team to Florida to help victims recover from storm damage.

Solomon, the CEO of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, said cash donations were preferable to other kinds of aid.

“Walmart and Target and JC Penny have a pretty good distribution system already,” he said. “What we need is the ability to go out and buy what we need when we need it.”

Solomon spoke on the phone Sept. 11 as he decided whether he was going to break a county curfew to go recite the Mourner’s Kaddish with a prayer quorum — he’s mourning the loss of three close relatives in the past year. But as the storm chugged northward towards Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama, he struck a note of confidence for Miami, a city that has seen its fair share of nasty storms.

“We’re going to be just fine,” he said. “We know this drill.”

Jews fleeing Hurricane Irma are taking refuge in Atlanta’s synagogues

Volunteers in Atlanta's Orthodox Jewish community coordinate homes for evacuees from Hurricane Irma, which is set to hit Florida this weekend. Photo courtesy of Adam Starr

Rabbi Adam Starr was returning from an emergency trip to Houston, where he had helped a colleague clean up his synagogue after Harvey swept through that city, when his phone began to buzz. Jews from Florida had begun contacting Starr’s Atlanta synagogue seeking a safe haven from Hurricane Irma.

So on Tuesday, right after Starr got back from pulling out drywall and moving holy books in Texas, he began organizing his own relief effort back home. By Thursday night, he and a team of local volunteers were sitting around folding tables in Beth Jacob, a suburban Atlanta Orthodox synagogue, each working on laptops to coordinate shelter for Florida Jews.

“We were starting to get inquiries about Irma – two, three, four people asking about coming for Shabbat,” said Starr, rabbi of the Young Israel of Toco Hills, near Beth Jacob. “We realized this is going to be a real need, and instead of dealing with a one-off, let’s open our community.”

Irma, a Category 4 storm, has been called one of the worst hurricanes in decades. It ravaged the Caribbean this week and is expected to make landfall in Florida late Saturday.

The number of families seeking refuge in Atlanta’s Orthodox community is up to 250 — and growing. The community has turned into a landing spot for religious Jews from Florida seeking home hospitality, a local synagogue and meals for Shabbat funded by the Orthodox Union. Starr estimates that about 600 Orthodox families live in the area; many of them will be hosting impromptu guests on Friday night.

“What’s been going on for the past 36 hours is making shidduchim,” Starr said, using a Hebrew word for matches. “We’re the largest [nearby] Orthodox community that’s not directly in the path of the hurricane. We can do a tremendous kindness in assisting these people who want to get out of harm’s way.”

The Orthodox synagogues are two of nearly a dozen Atlanta Jewish institutions that have pitched in to help Irma evacuees from Florida, which has one of the country’s largest Jewish populations. Members of B’nai Torah, a Conservative synagogue, are hosting about 150 people, including some non-Jews. On Saturday morning, a few dozen members of the Conservative Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center, on Florida’s coast, will attend services and lunch at B’nai Torah.

A few other synagogues have opened their doors, as have three nearby Jewish camps that are hosting evacuees. The campus Chabad at Georgia Tech is welcoming students from out of state, and the local Jewish community center is offering free passes to evacuees. Jewish Family and Career Services has a hotline where evacuees experiencing trauma can talk to clinicians.

The rabbis aren’t sure how long they will have to host the Floridians, though Heller estimates they will be in Atlanta at least until Wednesday. And though Atlanta is inland, there is a chance that Irma could bring damage there, too. Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, are also in its path.

“All of Florida is trying to come to Atlanta at the moment, and Savannah and Charleston are close behind,” said B’nai Torah Rabbi Joshua Heller, who was up at 1:30 a.m. Friday inflating air mattresses in his basement for evacuees.

This isn’t the first time Atlanta’s Jews have mobilized to help out-of-state hurricane victims.

Melissa Miller, public relations manager for the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, recalls the community making a similar effort in 2005 to shelter Jewish victims of Hurricane Katrina as it swept through New Orleans. Some of those evacuees never left Atlanta.

“We had whole families in the middle of the night who came to Atlanta, left all their belongings,” Miller said. “There’s a tradition of loving kindness and Southern hospitality that all goes hand in hand. We’ve just always mobilized.”

Jews may travel on Shabbat to escape Hurricane Irma, Charedi rabbi says

Hurricane Irma are pictured in the Atlantic Ocean on Sept. 7. Photo from NOAA

An influential Ashkenazi rabbi in Israel said Jews may travel on Shabbat to escape Hurricane Irma, a Category 4 storm that is expected to hit Florida over the weekend.

But some Jews in flood-prone areas are determined to ride out the storm, another rabbi said.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who receives thousands of followers annually at his home in Bnei Brak from Charedi Orthodox communities around the world, issued the call in an interview with a follower. One of his aides filmed and posted his response online Wednesday.

Kanievsky’s ruling came as people in parts of three Florida counties faced mandatory evacuation orders Thursday and officials in two other counties issued voluntary orders to leave in advance of Irma.

The storm could create one of the largest mass exoduses in U.S. history as additional evacuations are announced. Orthodox Jewish law permits the violation of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, only in life-threatening or otherwise severe emergencies.

Late Thursday, the National Weather Service issued a hurricane warning for South Florida and a storm surge warning as Irma makes its expected way to the U.S.

Tens of thousands of people had left the area voluntarily even before mandatory evacuations took place in the Florida Keys and began Thursday in some parts of the Miami area.

But many Jews in Miami will stay, according to Rabbi Chaim Lipskar, co-director with his wife, Deenie, of Miami’s Shul of Downtown.

Lipskar, who has five young children at home, told the Chabad.org website that half of his community is determined to remain in town. He said his family plans on riding out the storm in the 20,000-square-foot, 3-year-old Chabad House, which “is made of solid steel and concrete, and can handle hurricane-force winds.”

“We have gas generators, food and water; we are all set up,” the rabbi said. “We are going to hunker down and hope for the best.”

Evacuation orders led to the closure on Wednesday afternoon of the Lubavitch Educational Center, where some 1,500 students from preschool through high school are enrolled. The school, which has several campuses in the greater Miami area, will remain closed for the next few days.

An Orthodox community in Toco Hills, an Atlanta neighborhood, is offering hospitality to Jews evacuating Florida. Congregation Beth Jacob is planning to host approximately 400 people for meals on Shabbat, a publicist said, and more than 210 local  families have signed up to host.

The governors of Georgia and South Carolina ordered mandatory evacuations of low-lying coastal areas around Savannah and Charleston as rescue forces brace for the arrival this weekend of the storm, whose 165 mph winds have already devastated whole islands in the Caribbean, resulting in several deaths.

The path the storm will take as it rolls up Florida remains unclear, USA Today reported. The Florida Keys are poised to get hit. Some models show the storm’s eye bending a bit, just to the east of the Florida coast, while other models take the storm directly over Miami Beach.

Hurricane Irma was no match for this mikveh on St. Martin

Some of the wreckage wrought by Hurricane Irma on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin on Sept. 6. Photo by Lionel Chamoiseau/AFP/Getty Images

It was 5 a.m. Wednesday and Hurricane Irma was pounding the tiny Caribbean island of Saint Martin. Rabbi Moishe Chanowitz and his wife, Chana, the Chabad movement’s emissaries there, gathered their five children and hunkered down in an unlikely place: a mikveh.

According to the Chanowitzes, as told on Chabad.org, the ritual bath helped save their lives.

The storm killed at least eight people on St. Martin and a councilman told Reuters that 95 percent of the 34-square-mile island was destroyed. Irma’s winds reached around 180 miles per hour and decimated trees and homes, flinging cars around in its wake.

Even though the Chanowitzes’ Chabad center building was sturdy and built into the side of a mountain, the storm had them rightly terrified. By 4 a.m. Wednesday, the front door of the building had flown off.

“You could hear it; you feel the pressure in your ears,” Moishe Chanowitz said. “I thought the windows would explode at any moment.”

With more wallboards flying away, the Chanowitzes fled to the center of the building and into the mikveh. It’s still under construction but crucially has an outer wall and a door. The family pushed a commercial freezer in front of the door.

The door of the Chabad center in Saint Martin blew off when Hurricane Irma passed through. (Chabad.org/News)

“We have hurricane-proof doors and windows; it’s not like we weren’t prepared,” Chanowitz said. “But this was off the charts. The mikveh saved us.”

Around 10 a.m., the family and hundreds of neighbors finally ventured out into the disheveled landscape. Most had similar stories. One friend told the Chanowitzes he survived by hiding in a closet.

For now, the Chanowitzes, along with the rest of Saint Martin, are left without electricity.

“The damage is unimaginable,” Chanowitz said. “But we’re going to rebuild.”

The Chasidic Chabad movement is known for its outreach around the world and has emissaries in nearly 100 countries.

May Harvey inspire our better angels

Volunteers huddle after helping clear furniture from the flooded house of a neighbor in Houston on Sept. 3. Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

Whenever there’s a tragedy, people unify.

That’s true of every group. It’s true of Americans during Hurricane Harvey. It’s true of Jews during every crisis in Jewish history. It’s only pressure from the outside that demonstrates cohesion within.

But what happens when the tragedy ends? What happens when the crisis abates?

If we’re not careful, we fragment again.

Take the Jewish community as an example. During the Gaza War, Jews around the world united in support of Israel; the deadly rocket assaults and brutal tunnel kidnappings from Hamas terrorists forced Jews to come to the realization that no matter their internal divisions, their mortal enemies wanted them collectively destroyed. Then the Gaza War ended, and Jews got back to the business of savaging themselves: leftists suggested that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration was too resistant to negotiations with the Palestinians, right-wingers suggested that the left was too conciliatory.

The same will be true in Houston. As the rains fall, driving thousands from their homes and destroying the savings of thousands more; as Texans band together to weather the elements and venture out on missions to save their fellow citizens; as Americans around the country watch, heartbroken, and reach for their checkbooks to try to help in any way they can, we feel united. That’s not new. We felt united after Sept. 11. We felt united during Hurricane Katrina. But that unity will inevitably break down: There will be complaints about government malfeasance, about partisan politics. In fact, it’s already begun: We’ve seen diatribes about first lady Melania Trump’s high heels, President Donald Trump’s crowd-size remarks, and supposed hypocrisy regarding federal disaster funding.

This is the point: Crises are sporadic. But we must take to heart the clarifying truths we see during crises: that we are united, that we are family.

In the Jewish community, this means recognizing that once a crisis ends, our enemies do not disappear. Hamas is intractable, as its members prove each and every day: Last week, they moved to restore ties to Iran and Syria. The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, named a youth camp in Jericho after Dalal Mughrabi, a female terrorist responsible for hijacking an Israeli bus and killing 38 civilians, including 13 children. Hard-leftists continue to call for divestment from Israel; alt-righters continue to target Jews as a cancer eating away at Western civilization. Jews must understand that the values we hold dear — individual rights and personal accountability, cherishing life above death, the perpetuation of Judaism and its adherents — will not endure further crises if we do not retain our unity.

Crises are sporadic. But we must take to heart the clarifying truths we see during crises: that we are united, that we are family.

In the broader American community, the same holds true. Houston showed us that artificial barriers of race don’t matter in the slightest — Blacks helped whites, whites helped Blacks. Color didn’t matter as first responders raced to save drowning people flooded from their homes. Neither did concerns about tax rates or Medicare funding. In the end, Americans were united because we saw that we held values of family and community in common, that we cared enough about each other and trusted each other enough to know that even in our darkest hour, we would reach out. We didn’t need a heavy hand forcing us to do so; all we required was the motivation of our own hearts.

None of this means there isn’t room for disagreements, hearty and loud. None of this means that we can’t engage in brutal politicking — the issues about which we disagree do matter. But if we see one another as enemies rather than brothers, then the true crisis will come: the crisis of division. Even as Americans braved storms to help one another in Houston, Americans beat the living hell out of other Americans in Berkeley — members of antifa attacked a crowd of peaceful demonstrators, declaring themselves anti-Nazi in the process. Antifa sees its opponents as enemies, not brothers. Some antifa fellow travelers — Mark Bray of Dartmouth comes to mind — feel the same way. That belief, in turn, will lead too many right-wing fellow travelers to make room for violent groups on their own side.

But Houston is America; Berkeley is what America looks like when external crisis becomes internal crisis. Abraham Lincoln wasn’t merely speaking to 1861 Americans when he pleaded with them to remember their “bonds of affection,” praying that “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

We see the better angels of our nature in Houston. May they inspire us to remember those bonds of affection, before everything falls apart.


BEN SHAPIRO is editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire, host of the most listened-to conservative podcast in the nation, “The Ben Shapiro Show,” and author of The New York Times best-seller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear Silences Americans.”

Bubbe lives in the path of Hurricane Irma. Now what?

Floridians in Tampa filling sandbags to prepare for Hurricane Irma on Sept. 5. Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Beatrice Marks’ one-story home might flood this week. But she laughs off the threat.

“It doesn’t faze me one bit. Not anymore,” said Marks, 86, whose community of seniors lies in the path of Hurricane Irma, which is set to make landfall in Florida at the end of the week. “As far as the actual fear of the hurricane, we all are afraid. But it’s a thing we know that can come and go.”

Marks, who has lived in Florida for more than 70 years, is an outlier among octogenarians — living alone and driving with barely any assistance in everyday activities. But as a Jewish senior in Florida, she is far from alone.

Long a mecca for Jewish retirees, South Florida has a disproportionate number of Jewish elderly. With thousands of local seniors in their areas, Jewish communal agencies are gearing up to prepare the elderly for Irma, which officials say could be one of the worst hurricanes in decades.

“We’ve already been getting calls from people who are scared,” said Barbara Bailin, director of financial services for Goodman Jewish Family Services of Broward County on Florida’s east coast. “A lot of our seniors are in old condominiums. They might be living near the beach in things that are 40 years old, and a lot of people don’t want to leave.”

Irma, which is predicted to hit the Caribbean on Wednesday, has been designated a Category 5 storm and has the highest wind speeds recorded since the 1980s. Its current path has it crossing Puerto Rico and Cuba before reaching southern Florida on Sunday morning — just two weeks after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Texas coast.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has declared a statewide state of emergency, and Jewish groups already are focusing on the state’s large population of Jewish seniors. In South Florida, more than a quarter of its population is seniors, according to recent population studies.

Beatrice Marks has lived in Florida for 70 years and isn’t fazed by the arrival of Hurricane Irma. (Courtesy of Marks)

Many of those seniors live independently or, like Marks, in a community where some housekeeping is taken care of, but a fraction are dependent on Jewish organizations for meals on wheels, medicine and transportation. Others turn to the agencies when other support runs out or in emergencies like these. Jewish service agencies hope to assist those clients by connecting them with relevant state agencies, helping them stock up on supplies and persuading them to get out of harm’s way.

“Everyone’s taken a little bit aback by the latest turn of events,” said Alec Rosen, vice president of community engagement for Jewish Community Services of South Florida. “We’re calling clients, making sure they have adequate food and water.”

Rosen’s organization delivers more than 100,000 kosher meals annually to 665 homebound seniors, and is ensuring that they have three days worth of food, water and medication. And while most local buildings have hurricane protections like shutters and reinforced windows, Bailin’s agency will work to persuade seniors living in insecure areas to leave their homes for government-run special needs centers, which will be safe from damage and able to provide the necessities now being cleared off of South Florida’s supermarket shelves.

Local and state governments provide a share of the assistance, from ensuring buildings are safe to transporting seniors to the evacuation centers. On Wednesday, Miami-Dade County will begin evacuating special-needs residents. But Bailin said getting seniors to go to the shelters isn’t easy.

“Seniors don’t want to leave their homes when they can’t take care of themselves anymore,” she said. “You hear, ‘I’ve lived here for 40 years and never had a problem.’”

Previous storms — like Hurricane Wilma in 2005 — have taught Bailin to prepare as much for the storm’s aftermath as for the lead-up. People often hoard perishable food, she said — a likely power outage will render it useless. Better, she recommended, to buy dry staples that will last. Jewish Family Services also holds off on providing emergency food stipends to clients until the storm passes.

“You’ve got to stop to realize the worst hurricane comes and goes within three or four days,” Marks said. “Why would you stock up on food when your lights are going to go out? You’re not going to have refrigeration. You buy crackers, you buy dry food, you’ve got cereal.”

What can distant children and grandchildren do to help? Not much, Bailin says, beyond calling service agencies to confirm that their relatives are located and have all the essentials provided. Florida’s Department of Elder Affairs has a hurricane preparedness guide.

And it’s important, Bailin said, to make the call now.

“Make sure mom and dad have a plan in place,” she said. “Encourage them to evacuate where they have emergency services. If they call us at the last minute, they can’t do anything then.”

Marks doesn’t plan to leave her home, but if she does, she will join one of her sons, who both live nearby. But she doubts they’ll be able to do much she can’t do on her own.

“As far as preparation is concerned, there isn’t too much we can do about that,” she said. “We all have shutters in our home. The water is a menace and always will be, I think.”