Sandy Hook, Sandy and the politics of learned helplessness


“We have got to get Michelle to make this her priority.”

It was my friend Judith, a wise woman, a mother and grandmother, on the phone from across the country, the evening of the day of the Newtown massacre, trying to figure out how to enlist the first lady in a campaign against gun violence.

From the email Judith wrote her: “Unless from the top with unyielding outrage we rein in and destroy the gun lobby – unless we stigmatize the NRA as we stigmatized the Ku Klux Klan – we will be robbed of any claim we have to our children's and grandchildren's respect.”

She was calling to get my help to get Michelle Obama's attention. I was appalled by how effortlessly cynical was the response that came out of my mouth.

This one is different, I said. That's what everyone is saying, and it's true. Mowing down first-graders with a ” target=”_hplink”>Associated Press-Gfk poll was released; it found that 4 out of 5 Americans say global warming will be a serious U.S. problem unless action is taken to reduce it. “Belief and worry about climate change,” said the AP, “are inching up among Americans in general, but concern is growing faster among people who don't often trust scientists on the environment. In follow-up interviews, some of those doubters said they believe their own eyes as they've watched thermometers rise, New York City subway tunnels flood, polar ice melt and Midwestern farm fields dry up.”

” target=”_hplink”>350.org will continue to gain traction on college campuses. I have no doubt that the more stories about climate change that Americans hear and see, the more they will demand action from their representatives.

But as things stand, it is virtually inconceivable to me that our lawmakers will rise to the challenge. The petroleum industry swings as big a bat in Washington as the gun lobby. Even if the president has the second-term courage to propose it, our corrupt campaign finance system won't make an enlightened exception for a cap-and-trade bill. The fear of losing a race exceeds the fear of losing a planet.

Are special interests invincible? No, and each counter-example is a ray of hope, something we could all use this season. Last August, in the heat of the campaign, President Obama courageously doubled ” target=”_hplink”>it was called “a blow to the credibility and power of the nation's gun lobby,” proof that the “NRA is no longer bullet proof.” Still, I can't help noting that the CAFE standards were raised by executive action, and didn't require the assent of the Tea Party Congress. Or that the 1994 assault weapons ban was able to pass the House (by a razor-thin margin of 216 votes) because the NRA suffered 38 Republican defections, led by GOP leader Bob Michel of Illinois, who arguably was able to reverse his previous opposition to the ban because he – like several NRA-friendly Democrats who also voted for it – was about to retire from Congress. That fall, when Newt Gingrich and the Republicans took over the House, the narrative was born, and persists to this day, that bucking the NRA is political suicide.

This time around, I'd love my pessimism to be proven wrong. I'd be thrilled if Michelle Obama were the answer. I'd be grateful to rekindle my confidence in democracy. Learned helplessness is the status quo's most pernicious enabler, and I welcome any ladder out of this pit. But whether it's guns or climate change, poverty or plutocracy, war or water: whatever problem most troubles any of us, I'm convinced that the way forward requires a transformational solution to the power of money and fear to determine our national fate.


Marty Kaplan is the ” target=”_hplink”> USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

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. 

Light 

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.”

Luck

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.”

Gimel

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.”

Courage 

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. 

MaccabeeJanis 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.” 

Gifts

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. 

GiftIn 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.” 

Gelt 

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. 

GeltThe 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

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:

Weeks after Sandy, enormity of human and economic costs are becoming clear


Kenny Vance's multimillion-dollar beach house has stood proudly on the Long Island shore and weathered all manner of storms since 1916. Then came Sandy.

Vance, a 68-year-old musician who has lived in Belle Harbor, N.Y.,  for most of his life, was preparing  to perform on a cruise ship when newscasters first warned of a major storm heading for the East Coast. But Vance had seen this movie before and knew the protocol. He boxed up his most precious belongings, rolled out the storm shutters and left. From a ship docked in Puerto Rico he watched superstorm Sandy destroy everything he owned.

“Once I saw the size of the storm, and heard the winds were coming from the south, I knew I was screwed,” Vance, who gained fame as the lead singer of the Planotones, told JTA. “The winds blew off the top of my house, and the rest of the structure basically crumbled. Everything is gone.”

Among his losses are countless pieces of precious memorabilia accumulated over the course of a nearly 50-year music career: his priceless collection of vintage guitars, a slot machine from the 1900s valued at $20,000, and a lamp that belonged to the late New Mexico artist Tony Price. Not the least of his worries, Vance is now homeless and living at a hotel on Staten Island.

“There’s just no way to get these things replaced, and I just redid my kitchen and bathrooms,” Vance said. “My grandkids would come stay here with me every summer; I’ve lost all that. And my feral cat I lived with for over fours years, she’s gone, too.”

Some three weeks after Sandy washed ashore, power has been largely restored in the tristate area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut and, for most people, life has gradually returned to normal. But for some, normal has been forever redefined.

“The history of our temple is now just moldering pulp,” said Amy Cargman, president of the West End Temple in Neponsit, a neighborhood just west of Belle Harbor on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens.

“Everything was completely decimated,” Cargman said. “We took the Torahs out, fortunately, but everything from prayer books to pews to the rabbi’s personal library is gone.”

Residents of Belle Harbor and Neponsit, both affluent areas, perhaps were better equipped than most to weather a catastrophic weather event. They had cars and cash and cruise ship evacuation routes — unlike many of their neighbors in the Rockaways and nearby Brooklyn and Staten Island. But even with comparatively deep pockets and up-to-date insurance payments, few will ever fully restore their lives.

“Even if I fix my home, our banks, our schools, our gyms, our temples, our restaurants are all gone,” said Laurie Musumeci, a 56-year-old real estate agent who lives near Vance and also is a member of the West End Temple. “It doesn’t feel like home. I’m right on the ocea,n but it’s hard for me to look at it right now. I can’t believe something I’ve loved my whole life did this to us.”

Musumeci's family lost the five cars that were in her driveway when the storm hit and the basement of her home, which her grandfather built in 1939 and also had served as her office and her son's apartment. Musumeci estimates she needs $64,000 for repairs — the $2,700 she's received so far from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is “a joke,” she says – and has had to tap into savings set aside for her daughter's college tuition.

“Our insurance will only cover things they say is expected in the basement, like our boiler and heat system,” she said. “Everything else is gone.”

Elsewhere in the Northeast, residents had more immediate concerns than inadequate insurance payouts and lost guitars. In Atlantic City, which produced some of the most dramatic images of the storm's devastation, some 6,000 homes were estimated to have been severely damaged and more than 600 people were made homeless.

Three weeks later, city shelters are closed, and in a city that already had a homeless population of about 3,000, other agencies are stepping in to fill the void.

“We're providing 150 families a day basic necessities of clothing, supplies, food,” said Beth Joseph of Jewish Family Services of Atlantic and Cape May counties. “Many people's houses were flooded with their electrical systems and furnaces destroyed, so you're looking at hundreds of people displaced. Also, tons of businesses were ruined and it might be a year before they are opened, so we need to account for the unemployed who can no longer support themselves.”

Joseph's organization has raised more than $50,000 to provide temporary housing for families ineligible for federal assistance, a sum that hardly scratches the surface of what is needed. And the situation is likely to get worse once FEMA pulls out.

“There's still so much to do, and the money we've raised so far will not be enough,” Joseph said.

Millions of dollars have been raised by Jewish organizations and countless volunteer efforts have been mobilized. UJA-Federation of New York has allocated some $10 million for relief in eight counties, including the five boroughs of New York City, Westchester and Long Island. The federation, the country's largest, raised an additional $2.5 through its website.

So far, $3.2 million has been disbursed to beneficiary agencies to provide food, water, shelter and other necessities, but the organization is beginning to look ahead as well — to permanent housing, trauma treatment, and services for the poor and elderly who don't have insurance.

“Even though it's a few weeks after the storm, the basic needs are not going to go away so fast,” said Alice Blass of the the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, which has raised $54,000 for storm relief, about half of which has been disbursed to agencies.

Nationally, the Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella group of all the local federations, has raised about $3 million for hurricane relief — about $2.2 million from other federations and the rest from its own coffers. About $250,000 was allocated to New York and $350,000 to federations in New Jersey and Rockland County, north of New York City.

And that's not counting dozens of smaller volunteer efforts that have drawn support from across the Jewish community. More than 60 carloads of supplies were donated by area synagogues to coastal New Jersey communities. And a synagogue in Baltimore bused hundreds of volunteers to the heavily Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood of Seagate, which even now still has the feel of a disaster zone.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, volunteers wearing boots and masks filled the streets. Kids worked on assembly lines to help rip out the basements of homes and teenagers weaved through the narrow streets on ATVs handing out cleaning supplies. Shomrim, the Jewish neighborhood watch group, had set up a command unit and was handing out hot food and drinks. Along the beach, gaping holes in waterfront homes offered a peek at what was lost inside. Broken china, pieces of detached roofing and scattered electronics littered the beach and sidewalks.

Pinny Dembitzer, the president of the Seagate Homeowners Association, put on a brave face as he helped organize the cleanup, directing ambulances, food trucks and cleaning supplies to the proper destinations while answering three cell phones. Dembitzer hopes the neighborhood will come back stronger than ever. But surrounded by ruination and confronting untold rebuilding costs, that future was perilously hard to imagine.

“Nobody here was spared,” Dembitzer said. “Every single house you’re looking at had damage, and it will take millions to see repairs. I’ve been here 30 years, and I’ve never had a flood. Ninety-five percent of the people here don’t have insurance.”

Israeli volunteers head to N.Y. to help in Sandy relief efforts


A delegation of Israeli volunteers is on its way to the New York area to assist the Jewish community in the wake of superstorm Sandy.

The volunteers, young adult Russian speakers, will be in New York for 10 days to assist the Jewish community, with a focus on Russian speakers, according to the Jewish Agency.  They will help distribute food and other essential items to the elderly and provide social visits, as well as clean communal buildings and synagogues that suffered heavy damage in the storm.

The delegation includes volunteers from pre-army programs and other programs run by the Israeli Scouts, as well as former camp counselors at Jewish Agency summer camps in the former Soviet Union.

Some 200,000 Russian-speaking Jews reside in the northeastern United States in areas badly damaged by the storm. Many of the elderly Russian-speaking Jews live in multi-story buildings in the New York area, some of which are still without electricity or phone service. The storm also damaged Jewish communal buildings, causing the cancellation of many community and social services.

Berlin’s Jewish community offering help for Sandy victims


A Jewish woman in Berlin with family in hard-hit Staten Island, N.Y., started a clothing drive for those affected by superstorm Sandy.

Bella Zchwiraschwili, an event manager, was moved to action after seeing what happened to her own aunts, uncles and cousins. Zchwiraschwili asked her contacts at Chabad in Berlin if they would open their doors for donations, and she said they were more than willing. Items have started to arrive.

Berliners are being encouraged to bring clothing and small toys to the Chabad center on Tuesday and Wednesday. The items will be brought to the American Embassy and Red Cross Berlin later in the week to be shipped.

“Many people think, 'Oh, America is rich country, it will be OK,” Zchwiraschwili told JTA. “But I practically lived through this with my family, and they are an example of how people lost everything from one day to the next.”

Zchwiraschwili’s relatives, emigrants from Odessa like herself,  settled on Staten Island. The family, which since has grown, lived close together.

During the storm, most of the family was evacuated in dinghies. But two people stayed behind to try to rescue possessions from the house. Zchwiraschwili spoke to them as they literally were swimming through the house. The police came eventually and ordered them to leave after the sewage pipes in the area burst.

“Last Sunday they returned to the house. They said everything inside is destroyed,” according to Zchwiraschwili. It remains to be seen whether the house itself can be
rebuilt. Her relatives are now living with other family in New Jersey and Long Island.

Zchwiraschwili said many initiatives similar to the one she launched are being undertaken by churches and other groups in Berlin.

“I wanted to help the people, and also to get people here to wake up a bit because there are too few such initiatives in general,” she said. “You don’t have to wait for a crisis to be active.”

Peres sends letter to Obama in wake of Sandy


Israeli President Shimon Peres expressed sympathy and friendship on behalf of the people of Israel to President Obama in the wake of superstorm Sandy.

In a letter sent to Obama Thursday, Peres wrote that he is “joined by the people of Israel in an expression of concern for the ravages caused by hurricane Sandy and the destruction it left in its wake. Our hearts go out to the people of America and I would like to extend my deepest sympathy and condolences to the families who have lost their loved ones in this superstorm.”

“I am sure that as in previous occasions when the people of America had to face challenges posed by nature or man, this time, too, you will prevail,” Peres wrote.

Peres concluded: “We are looking with admiration upon the courage of the American people and its leaders in dealing with the present ordeal. Our hearts are with you.”

Tree felled by Sandy kills Jewish teacher, college student


Two young Jews were killed in Brooklyn by a falling tree during superstorm Sandy.

The pair were out walking a dog Monday night in the storm's high winds.

The dead were identified by The New York Observer as Jessie Streich-Kest, 24, who worked as a high school teacher in the city, and Jacob Vogelman, a student at Brooklyn College. The two had been friends since middle school, according to the Observer.

They were discovered dead Monday, crushed by the fallen tree. The dog was taken to an emergency veterinary clinic.

At least 45 people in the United States and 68 outside of the U.S. have been killed in the one-of-a-kind storm, and more than 7 million people in 13 states were without power.

Meanwhile, Jewish institutions on the East Coast began to open up again. The UJA-Federation of New York announced on its website that its offices in Manhattan and Westchester would reopen, though its Long Island office would remain closed.

John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Newark International Airport in New Jersey were scheduled to reopen at 7 a.m. Wednesday with limited service, though New York's LaGuardia Airport remained closed.

Thousands of Israeli airline passengers and Americans in Israel trying to return home had their flights to the U.S. canceled on Monday and Tuesday. Israelis trying to get home also remained stranded in New York, New Jersey and the D.C. area. In all  more than 14,000 flights reportedly were canceled due to Sandy.

The greater New York area, home to the largest population of Jews in North America, was hit hard as severe winds and flooding toppled trees, knocked out electricity and flooded public transportation systems.

Jewish institutions throughout the eastern U.S. remained closed Tuesday.

Where was God When Hurricane Sandy Struck?


What was G-d thinking when he sent Hurricane Sandy and what could have been its purpose?

In truth, I don’t much care, because our role as humans is not to understand G-d’s plan in the face of horror and tragedy, but to challenge God and demand that human life always be protected and preserved.

Did I say demand? Yes, humanity has rights before Gd. We are His children. He commanded us to preserve and promote life always. “Choose life,” Moses orders the Israelite nation in God’s name, on the last day of His life. And the Creator must abide by the same dictates He expects His creatures to.

Reading The New York Times story today about the approximately 39 people who died in the storm, I was sick to my stomach. I read it out loud to my kids over our candlelit dinner in a home with no electricity or heat. They could not listen any more. There was the Manhattan woman whose only sin was to walk her dog and was killed by a falling tree. There was the woman whose iniquity was to take a picture of a downed power line. She did not see the puddle in front of her. Her body, the Times reported, was on fire for half an hour before rescue workers could salvage what was left of her. There was the young Jewish couple killed walking a dog in Brooklyn. There were the two boys in New York state killed when they walked just outside their house to peer at the storm briefly.

Did any of these people deserve to die?

In the face of these natural disasters there are always those who are trying to divine the mind of God when really their role as humans is to argue with Gd. That’s exactly what the name Israel means, He who wrestles with Gd. Isn’t that what Abraham does in this week’s Torah reading where he raises his fist to the heavens and proclaims, in the face of God’s announcement that he is destroying all the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, “Will the judge of the entire earth not Himself practice justice?” Would God really allow the righteous to die along with the wicked?

Is this not also what Moses says to God after he is told that the Jews will be annihilated for the sin of the Golden calf? If you do so, says the great prophet, “then I beseech you, erase my name from the Torah You have written.”

And when God had earlier sent Moses to free the Jews from Egypt but Pharaoh had instead intensified their suffering and servitude, Moses, defiant, says to God, “Why have you behaved wickedly to this people, and why have you sent me… You have thusfar not saved Your people.”

The role of human beings in the face of seeming divine miscarriages of justice is hold God accountable and demand clemency for humanity. God is all powerful. He does not need a defense attorney. But humans are fragile and vulnerable and they need all the protection they can get.

Today me, my family, and our campaign staff toured the devastation of our district. We saw cities deluged in flood waters, homes with trees crashed down on their roofs. We witnessed long lines of cars of people trying to buy gas, including tens of people with gas canisters waiting in line for hours. And as far as our campaign is concerned,, it has been reduced to me and our staff sitting in the Garden State Mall tonight plugged into a single outlet on the floor trying to charge our laptops and phones. All this is an inconvenience and, God willing, we’ll dig out. But the people who buried children, the residents who will never again see a spouse, the citizens will mourn parents, my God, my God, what are they to do?

I have grown weary of those who say that suffering is somehow redemptive, that it carries with it a positive outcome. I do not deny that this is at times so. Those who suffer can sometimes emerge humbler, wiser, gentler. But let’s get real. There is nothing beneficial that comes from suffering that could have not been achieved far more effectively through a positive means. To the contrary, suffering leaves us broken and cynical, disbelieving and forlorn, miserable and depressed.

It is time we human beings agreed to wage an all out war on suffering so that it is never excused as something blessed again.

Never again should we say that earthquakes in Haiti are caused by a compact the Haitians had earlier made with the devil. Never again should we say that Israeli soldiers die because Kibbutznikim eat rabbit and other non-kosher meat. Never again should we say that innocent Palestinians, who are used as human shields by the terrorist monsters of Hamas and Hezbollah, die because of the wrath of Allah. And never again must we say that the Jews of the holocaust died because they wanted to be cease being Jewish, choosing to be German instead.

Because I am disgusted with this kind of thought, I wrote a full-length book that is to be published in November called The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. But I could not have divined, when I wrote it, that the place I live would have experienced such immense devastation.

The Bible in Deuteronomy is clear. “The hidden things are for G-d to understand, but the revealed things are for us and our children.” Why G-d allows good people to suffer is a secret known to him. But we human beings ought to have no interest in knowing the secret. What we want, what we demand, is that the suffering stop completely so that God and humanity can finally be reconciled, after a long history of human travail and agony, in a bright and blessed future, bereft of suffering, absent of tragedy, and filled with blessing.


Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the Republican Candidate for Congress in New Jersey's Ninth Congressional District. The international best-selling author of 28 books, his newest work is “Kosher Jesus”. Next month he will publish “The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Follow him on Twitter @Rabbishmuley. His website is www.shmuleyforcongress.com.

Jewish institutions remain closed due to Sandy


Jewish institutions throughout the eastern United States remained closed following the onslaught of superstorm Sandy.

Sandy, which was downgraded from a hurricane late Monday night, made landfall near Atlantic City Monday, with hurricane-force winds of up to 85 miles per hour and heavy rains.

At least 13 people in the United States and 68 outside of the U.S. have been killed so far in the one-of-a-kind storm, and more than 6 million people in 13 states are without power.

The UJA-Federation of New York posted a notice on its website that the building would be closed and all meetings and events canceled on Tuesday, and that information on Wednesday's events would be posted Tuesday night. The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan also announced that it would be closed until it is safe to return.

In New York, public transportation shut down on Sunday night, and schools and offices in the city were scheduled to be closed. Low-lying areas of the city, including parts of southern Brooklyn and the Rockaways, were ordered evacuated. Wall Street also shut down Monday and Tuesday due to the weather.

Parts of Maryland, Delaware and the New Jersey Shore also were ordered evacuated.

In the Washington area, the public transportation system stopped on Monday, and schools, colleges and universities also closed due to expected power outages. Some already announced that they will remain closed Tuesday and possibly into Wednesday, according to The Washington Post.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and area day schools also closed Monday.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia also announced that it would be closed Monday and Tuesday and would resume operations on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, President Obama, who suspended campaigning to return to Washington to monitor the storm, declared a major disaster in New York City, New Jersey and Long Island.

Meanwhile, flights between Israel's Ben Gurion Airport and U.S. cities, including New York, Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia, on Tuesday were canceled for a second day.

Flights between Israel and U.S. delayed due to Sandy


Flights between Israel and the United States continue to be delayed as superstorm Sandy continues to batter America's northeast coast.

Thousands of Israeli airline passengers had their flights to the United States canceled on Monday and Tuesday.

Israelis trying to get home remained stranded in New York, New Jersey and the D.C. area as well.

In all  more than 14,000 flights reportedly have been canceled due to Sandy.

Passengers will be able to take a different flight or get their money back under a new law on flight delays.

Ynet reported on Jacob, a young religious resident of Jerusalem, whose wedding is scheduled for Thursday in New York.  Flights from Tel Aviv to the East Coast for Jacob and 30 of his family members have been  delayed since Sunday. The groom and his family are concerned that the wedding may not take place on the scheduled day.

East Coast crippled by massive storm, death toll climbs


Millions of people were left reeling in the aftermath of the whipping winds and heavy rains of the massive storm Sandy on Tuesday as New York City and many parts of the eastern United States struggled with epic flooding and extensive power outages.

The storm killed at least 40 people, including at least 18 in New York City, and insurance companies started to tally billions of dollars in losses.

Sandy, which crashed ashore with hurricane-force winds on Monday near the New Jersey gambling resort of Atlantic City, was the biggest storm to hit the country in generations. It swamped parts of New York's subway system and lower Manhattan's Wall Street district, closing financial markets for a second day.

Businesses and homes along New Jersey's shore were wrecked and communities were submerged under floodwater across a large area. More than 8 million homes and businesses in several states were without electricity as trees toppled by Sandy's fierce winds took down power lines. Across the region, crews began the monumental task of getting power back on.

[Related: Jewish community bears impact of Hurricane Sandy]

The storm reached as far inland as Ohio and caused thousands of flight cancellations. Cellphone outages also were widespread.

Parts of West Virginia were buried under 3 feet of drifting snow from the storm.

Some East Coast cities like Washington, Philadelphia and Boston were spared the worst effects from Sandy and appeared ready to return to normal by Wednesday. But New York City, large parts of New Jersey and some other areas will need at least several days to get back on their feet.

“The devastation is unthinkable,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said after seeing pictures of the New Jersey shore.

The storm interrupted the U.S. presidential campaign just a week before the Nov. 6 election. The damage it caused raised questions about whether polling places in some hard-hit communities would be ready to open by next Tuesday.

Seeking to show he was staying on top of a storm situation that affected a densely populated region, the White House said President Barack Obama planned to tour damaged areas of New Jersey on Wednesday accompanied by Christie.

The New Jersey governor, who has been a strong supporter of Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney, praised Obama and the federal response to the storm.

“New Jersey, New York in particular have been pounded by this storm. Connecticut has taken a big hit,” Obama said during a visit to Red Cross headquarters in Washington.

Obama issued federal emergency decrees for New York and New Jersey, declaring that “major disasters” existed in both states.

Power outages darkened large parts of downtown Manhattan. A large blaze destroyed more than 80 homes in New York City's borough of Queens, where flooding hampered firefighting efforts.

“To describe it as looking like pictures we've seen of the end of World War Two is not overstating it. The area was completely leveled. Chimneys and foundations were all that was left of many of these homes,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said after touring the area.

Neighborhoods along the East and Hudson rivers in Manhattan were underwater, as were low-lying streets in Battery Park near Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center once stood. Lower Manhattan could be without power for four days.

One disaster modeling company said on Tuesday that Sandy may have caused up to $15 billion in insured losses. That would make it the third-costliest hurricane on record, behind hurricanes Katrina, which laid waste to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, and Andrew, which devastated parts of Florida in 1992.

That figure did not take into account residential flood losses or flooding of tunnels and subways, meaning ultimate insurance claims could rise higher still.

CAMPAIGNING ON HOLD

Obama and Romney put campaigning on hold for a second day. The campaign truce was likely to be short-lived, as Romney planned to hit the trail again in Florida on Wednesday. Obama appeared likely to resume campaigning on Thursday for a final five-day sprint to Election Day.

Obama faces political danger if the government fails to respond well, as was the case with predecessor George W. Bush's botched handling of Katrina. Obama has a chance to show not only that his administration has learned the lessons of Katrina but that he can take charge and lead during a crisis.

All along the East Coast, residents and business owners found scenes of destruction.

“There are boats in the street five blocks from the ocean,” said evacuee Peter Sandomeno, one of the owners of the Broadway Court Motel in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. “That's the worst storm I've ever seen, and I've been there for 11 years.”

Sandy, which was especially imposing because of its wide-ranging winds, brought a record storm surge of almost 14 feet to downtown Manhattan, well above the previous record of 10 feet (3 meters) during Hurricane Donna in 1960, the National Weather Service said.

Water poured into the subway tunnels under New York City. Bloomberg said the subway system, which normally carries over 5 million people each weekday, would likely be closed for four or five days.

“Hitting at high tide, the strongest surge and the strongest winds all hit at the worst possible time,” said Jeffrey Tongue, a meteorologist for the weather service in Brookhaven, New York.

Hurricane-force winds as high as 90 miles per hour were recorded, he said. “Hopefully it's a once-in-a-lifetime storm,” Tongue said.

The U.S. Department of Energy said more than 8 million homes and businesses in several states were without electricity due to the storm.

“This storm is not yet over,” Obama told reporters at the Red Cross as he warned of the dangers of continued flooding, downed power lines and high winds. Obama, possibly mindful that disgruntled storm victims could mean problems for his re-election bid, vowed to push hard for power to be restored.

The flooding hampered efforts to fight a massive fire that destroyed more than 80 homes in Breezy Point, a private beach community on the Rockaway barrier island in the New York City borough of Queens.

New York University's Tisch hospital was forced to evacuate more than 200 patients, among them babies on respirators in the neonatal intensive care unit, when the backup generator failed.

Besides the deaths in New York City, others were reported in New York state, Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. Toronto police also recorded one death – a woman hit by flying debris. Sandy killed 69 people in the Caribbean last week.

U.S. government offices in Washington were due to reopen on Wednesday after two days. Schools were shut up and down the East Coast but were due to reopen on Wednesday in many places.

U.S. stock markets were closed on Tuesday but exchanges are expected to reopen on Wednesday.

The storm weakened as it plowed slowly west across southern Pennsylvania, its remnants situated between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, with maximum winds down to 45 mph, the National Hurricane Center said.

As Sandy converged with a cold weather system, blizzard warnings were in effect for West Virginia, western Maryland, eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky and western North Carolina.

Garrett County in Maryland had as much as 20 inches of heavy, icy snow that knocked out power to almost three-quarters of the area's 23,000 customers.

“It's the biggest (October snowstorm) that I remember and I've been here 25 years,” said area resident Richard Hill, who planned to huddle by his wood stove.

Jewish community bears impact of Hurricane Sandy


Less than a year into her job at North Shore Synagogue in Syosset, N.Y., Rabbi Debbie Bravo sounded remarkably poised as she and her community faced one of their most powerful challenges together: Hurricane Sandy.

Bravo’s land line was dead. When she picked up her cell phone Tuesday, she had just returned from the local police station.

“I have a child who takes medication that has to be refrigerated,” she said calmly.

According to figures released by The Long Island Power Authority on Tuesday, more than 930,000 families — 90 percent of all island residents — are without power after Hurricane Sandy wrought havoc Monday night across the northeastern United States. Among those 930,000 are an estimated 139,000 Jewish househoolds.

Hurricane Sandy, which washed ashore Monday evening just south of Atlantic City, N.J., took dead aim at the most populous region of the country, home as well to the majority of the country's Jews. In its wake, it left a trail of devastation that may take weeks to restore, if not longer.

“I went over to the synagogue a few hours ago, which is right next to a woodsy area,” Bravo said. “Ten plus trees are down, including a huge one down on the front law. Everyone’s saying this is a hundred times worse” than previous natural disasters that hit the island.

The greater New York area, home to the largest population of Jews in North America, took a harsh hit as severe winds and flooding toppled trees, triggered electrical fires and flooded public transportation systems. The result: mass evacuations of apartments and dormitories, widespread school closings and damaged homes and community institutions.

Early Tuesday afternoon, David Weissberg, executive director of the 120-year-old Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn., posted a photo of a tree that literally sliced through the roof over the center’s main building.

“We’re looking in the short term how to work around that space and need to assess how long it will take to get that space repaired,” Weissberg said.

“It’s an amazingly precise cut,” he marvelled. “It fell at an angle perfectly perpendicular to the building, which will hopefully make the repair an easier one.”

Jewish communal organizations, whose offices, landlines and in some cases e-mail servers were closed or down on Tuesday, largely set up shop remotely as they set out to formulate a response.

“The concerns of the Jewish Federations movement is focussed on both those in the Jewish community and non-Jewish community as we work with local Jewish federations as well as local, state and federal emergency management personnel to assess the damage and look forward to recovery,” said William Daroff, vice president of public policy and director of the Washington office of The Jewish Federations of North America.

Daroff noted that while watching the devastation unfold, social media was a source of comfort. “Compared to visuals from New York and the Long Island coast, having a support structure and literally thousands of friends acquired through Facebook and Twitter helped me feel less alone as my family sat shuttering with gusts of wind at 50 mph.”

The Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago set up a relief fund Monday night, with The Jewish Federations of North America and Union for Reform Judaism following suit the next afternoon.

For those without power on Long Island, finding alternative to landlines was critical.

“A lot of people are not getting cell phone service at home,” Bravo said. “For one congregant, the only time i could talk to her was when she left her house.”

As Bravo attempts to establish and maintain contact with the elderly and other congregants — including two with recent births — she also pondered the next moves for her synagogue’s two b’nai mizvah this weekend, which in all likelihood will be conducted without power.

“Truthfully in my mind, our options are try to use daylight,” she said.

Borough Park woman vacationing in Catskills killed in Irene


A Borough Park woman is among the at least 16 killed by Hurricane Irene’s six-state onslaught.

Leah Stern, a Jewish woman reportedly in her 70s, was trapped in the Valkyrian Motel in Fleischmann’s, New York, approximately 140 miles north of New York City, when the motel was uprooted and swept away by torrential water, reported VIN News.

On-lookers could hear Stern’s cries for help until around 3:30 PM, when the cries faded.

Stern was found dead by the fire departments from neighboring Broome County some hours later, reported Yeshiva World.

The motel, including Stern’s husband, had been evacuated earlier in the morning. It was not immediately apparent why she did not leave as well.

Hurricane Irene takes a toll on Jewish community with three deaths, but institutions spared


For some in the Jewish community, Hurricane Irene was a soggy inconvenience.

But for others it became a moment to extend a helping hand—in at least three cases, tragically.

David Reichenberg, a 50-year-old father of four from Spring Valley, N.Y., died while saving a father and his 6-year-old son from a downed power line. He contacted the live wire and was electrocuted.

Reichenberg, an Orthodox Jew, was one of three Jews reportedly killed Sunday in the storm.

Michael Kenwood, 39, also died while attempting to help others.

A volunteer first aid worker from Princeton, N.J., Kenwood was checking a submerged car that rescuers thought was occupied when he became untethered and slipped. Kenwood was swept away by the current and later was pulled unconscious from the waters. He died the same night, reported the Trenton Times. The car was found to be abandoned.

Rozalia Gluck, 82, of Brooklyn, N.Y., was trapped in a Catskills motel that had become unmoored during the storm and floated away. Authorities recovered her body late Sunday. Isaac Abraham, a leader in the Brooklyn Chasidic community, told the New York Daily News that Gluck was a Holocaust survivor originally from Russia.

“She survived Hitler,” Abraham said, “but she couldn’t survive Irene.”

By Tuesday afternoon, 40 deaths in 10 states were attributed to Hurricane Irene, The Associated Press reported.

In the Reichenberg tragedy, he had stopped to help the father and son, who were outside viewing the damage to their home in Rockland County when the boy touched a metal fence electrified by a fallen wire. Reichenberg pulled the two from the fence but could not escape himself, witness Moishe Lichtenstein told the New York Daily News.

“When I got there the victim was on the ground and he was touching the wire, which was in the water,” Lichtenstein said. “When emergency officials got there, they couldn’t touch him. We were standing there for like five or 10 minutes. We were just praying, ‘God help this man.’ “

Reichenberg was pronounced dead at the scene and was buried Sunday night. The injured boy, Reuven Herbst, was reported to be in critical but stable condition as of Monday night. His father, whose name was not released, suffered only minor injuries.

In an interview with JTA, a longtime friend of Reichenberg, Rabbi Avrohom Braun, described him as an “upbeat person with unshakable faith.” Braun is director of admissions and education at Ohr Somayach yeshiva, which Reichenberg attended 25 years ago.

Reichenberg, who ran a sign-making shop, would attend 6 a.m. classes each day before opening his store, Braun said. He also said Reichenberg regularly volunteered to help coordinate Shabbat meals for impoverished families in Rockland County, which has a large population of Orthodox Jews.

As the cleanup effort began late Sunday and the East Coast began to return to some semblance of normality on Monday—in many areas, public transportation was still unavailable—the major denominational synagogue groups were still trying to make contact with constituent congregations in areas without power or telephone lines. They were hindered by staff members unable to get to work due to lack of train service and impassable roads.

Except for power outages and some minor flooding, no shuls reported much damage. Congregations moved Torah scrolls and historical documents to safe buildings at high ground, said Rabbi Elliott Kleinman, chief program director for the Union for Reform Judaism.

Even before the storm struck, the Jewish community attempted to prepare for the worst.

Some New York neighborhoods that are home to large Jewish communities were evacuated by order of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, including Brighton Beach and portions of Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and Far Rockaway in Queens.

In Baltimore, the Rosenbloom Jewish Community Center opened its doors to 395 foreign workers, mostly Eastern European college students who had been evacuated from Ocean City, Md., the Baltimore Jewish Times reported. Although the JCC, located in the Baltimore suburb of Owings Mills, Md., had been designated an emergency evacuation center three years ago, it was the first time the building had been used for that purpose.

“As a Jewish organization, the JCC has the privilege of stepping up to uphold the Jewish value of ‘hachnasat orchim’—welcoming of guests into one’s homes,” the JCC’s leadership wrote in an e-mail, according to the report.

Before the storm, Jewish officials offered both practical and religious counsel in preparation for the hurricane. The Union for Reform Judaism issued hurricane preparation guides.

The Orthodox website Vos Iz Neias posted halachic guidelines issued years ago by the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America and others for what to do on the Sabbath in the event of a hurricane. Among other things, the guidelines specified that one may leave a radio on in a room of the house that is not generally used if there is concern for safety.

“The rabbis are getting a lot of calls today,” Dov Hikind, an Orthodox New York State assemblyman from Brooklyn, told Reuters last Friday.

Lindsay Goldman, the director of UJA-Federation of New York’s J-11 Information Referral Center, reported that UJA-Federation had advised its partner agencies to activate their emergency protocols. As of Monday morning, she said, all agencies had reported that they were open.

The URJ and B’nai B’rith International both opened hurricane relief funds to collect donations for hurricane aid. As of Monday, neither organization could say how much they had collected or had decided exactly how the money would be spent or distributed.

Rhonda Love, the director of B’nai B’rith’s Center for Community Action, said that even though the disaster occurred in the densely Jewish East Coast, aid will remain consistent with past natural disaster relief efforts—based on need, not creed.

“We’ll work where there’s any opportunity to help,” Love said.

The committee that will allocate the URJ funds is reviewing damage reports from congregations but will give according to the needs of “congregations, Jewish communities or larger communities,” Kleinman said. Those decisions will be made in the next week or two, he said; as of Monday there had been no immediate requests for funds.

“Being there right away is great,” Kleinman said. “But sticking with them in the future is just as important.”

Irene downgraded as four million without power


At least four million people are without power and nine dead in the United States in the wake of Hurricane Irene, which has been downgraded to a tropical storm.

The streets of New York City remained deserted on Sunday, as public transportation remained shut down, and the storm hit with sustained winds of 65 mph, according to the Associated Press.

Thousands of flights in and out of the areas three main airports – JFK and Laguardia in New York, and Liberty in New Jersey – were cancelled, including flights to and from Israel.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Aug. 26 ordered a mandatory evacuation of coastal areas prone to flooding in advance of Hurricane Irene, including some neighborhoods that are home to large Jewish communities.

In a news conference, Bloomberg said that all residents in the evacuation areas must leave by 5 p.m. on Saturday. The areas that the mayor ordered evacuated spanned the city’s five boroughs and include heavily Jewish neighborhoods such as Brighton Beach and portions of Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and Far Rockaway in Queens.

Some 300,000 people live in the evacuation areas, which include all parts of the city that are categorized on the city’s hurricane vulnerability map as Zone A, designating the places at highest risk of flooding from a hurricane’s storm surge. In addition, the mayor’s evacuation order applied to all residents of the Rockaways, irrespective of whether one lives in Zone A.

A Rabbi Meisels who was interviewed by the Orthodox website Vos Iz Neias urged residents of the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Sea Gate and Coney Island to leave before the Sabbath.

“Since the time for mandatory evacuation will be on Shabbos and we won’t be able to leave then, we are telling people to go before Shabbos,” Meisels told Vos Iz Neias. “We hope that ultimately this will all have been for nothing, but we are recommending that people leave now.

Vos Iz Neias also posted halachic guidelines from the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America and others for what to do on the Sabbath in the event of a hurricane. Among other things, the guidelines specify that one may leave a radio on in a room of the house that is not generally used if there is concern for safety.

The evacuation zone also included large parts of coastal Staten Island and Battery Park City in Manhattan, among other areas. New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority will suspend bus, train and subway service as of noon on Saturday.

“Some of the rabbis are giving permission to leave the radio on the Sabbath. The rabbis are getting a lot of calls today,” Dov Hikind, an Orthodox New York state assemblyman from Brooklyn, told Reuters.

New York takes unprecedented steps ahead of Irene


New York City on Friday ordered the evacuation of more than 250,000 people and prepared to shut down its entire mass transit system, both unprecedented measures ahead of the expected battering from Hurricane Irene.

The powerful and unusually large storm trudged up the U.S. East Coast on Friday, threatening 55 million people including more than 8 million in New York City, which was expecting heavy winds late on Saturday or early on Sunday.

Some members of the city’s observant Jewish population, normally prohibited by their religion from using electricity on Saturday, began leaving the city on Friday to avoid a religious dilemma should they need emergency services or information.

“Some of the rabbis are giving permission to leave the radio on the Sabbath. The rabbis are getting a lot of calls today,” said Dov Hikind, an orthodox Jewish state assemblyman from the borough of Brooklyn.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered people living in low-lying areas—including the Financial District surrounding Wall Street in Manhattan—out of their homes by 5 p.m. (2100 GMT) on Saturday, saying 91 emergency shelters would be open on Friday.

The transit system that carries 8.5 million people a day would start shutting down around noon (1600 GMT) on Saturday, a process that could take eight hours.

“We’ve never done a mandatory evacuation before and we wouldn’t be doing it now if we didn’t think this storm had the potential to be very serious,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a news conference.

New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo activated 900 National Guard troops while airlines moved aircraft from the danger zone and canceled at least 1,000 flights and the city’s four zoos stocked up to keep the animals fed.

Bridges leading to the island of Manhattan could be closed if winds exceed 60 mph (96 kph).

Police had a fleet of rescue boats at the ready in case resident of low-lying areas near the waterfront were trapped by the storm surge, which would be exacerbated by coincidental high tides.

The evacuations zones are mostly along the waterfront of the city—a complex geography of islands and peninsulas surrounded by rivers, harbors and open sea.

In the Rockaways area of Queens that faces the Atlantic Ocean, Destiny Crespo, 19, vowed to defy the evacuation order, saying, “No matter what, we’re going to board up these windows, we’re going to stay right here. … I am going to ride my way out of it like I’m a surfer.”

But her mother, Genevieve Crespo, 42, was more worried. “I am disabled. How am I going to get on the train with my grandkids? We have no idea where to go or what to do,” she said.

Benedict Willis, director of floor operations for investment banking boutique Sunrise Securities, said the NYSE had a responsibility to open Monday after the hurricane because millions of investors would rely on it for prices.

“But if the waters rise this high,” he said gesturing at the buzzing trading floor on Friday, “then it’s a bigger problem than I can handle. My name’s not Noah.”

The evacuations were mandatory, technically punishable by a $500 fine or 90 days in jail, but Bloomberg said, “We’re not trying to punish people. We’re trying to protect them.”

“Nobody’s going to get fined. Nobody’s going to jail. But if you don’t follow this, people might die,” Bloomberg said.

After the city experienced an unusually strong earthquake centered in Virginia on Tuesday, it prepared for a rare hurricane. Only five hurricanes in records dating to 1851 have tracked within 75 miles (120 km) of New York City, the most recent one being in 1985, according to weather.com.

“We are New Yorkers and we are tough. We like to think of ourselves as tough,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said. “But we’re also smart, and it’s smart to prepare. It’s smart to evacuate … and it’s smart to evacuate now.”

Homebound elderly and hospital patients in low-lying areas began to be evacuated earlier on Friday.

At Coney Island Hospital, ambulances were transporting 250 patients to other hospitals ahead of a shutdown set for 8 p.m. (0000 GMT on Saturday), said Evelyn Hernandez, a hospital spokeswoman.

The New York Stock Exchange was preparing a backup power generator and bringing in extra fuel and food to avoid disruptions when trade resumes on Monday. Around the corner, the New York Fed rolled out contingency plans in order to preserve the normal functioning of its open market operations on Monday, a spokesman said.

The Cyclone roller coaster—in the direct path of the storm on some projection models—was still running and scaring people on Friday, but would shut down on Sunday, when the heaviest rains were expected.

“I figured I wanted to come and ride it and I’m happy because it might not be here anymore,” said Jon Muller, 29, a tourist from Erie, Pennsylvania, celebrating his wedding anniversary with his wife.

New Yorkers hungry for information crashed the city’s website (http://www.nyc.gov/html/home_alt.html) looking for news on evacuations or service shutdowns.

At the Costco wholesale store in Brooklyn, the bottled water aisle was lined with shopping carts on Friday, some piled high with packets of plastic bottles.

“You never know if we’re going to need it. Might as well have some extra for the kids,” said Carmen Viera, 63, who had three cases of water in her shopping cart to take home to her house in Brooklyn with three children and two grandchildren.

Sporting events and show business were already falling victim to storm warnings.

The kick-off time for Saturday’s National Football League game between the New York Giants and New York Jets was brought forward several hours to avoid the worst of the foul weather, and the New York Mets baseball team postponed games on Saturday and Sunday.

But some bars and restaurants were preparing for a brisk business from New Yorkers who planned to ride out the storm with plenty of food an alcohol.

The manager at the Merchants River House restaurant, which is just behind the Hudson River boardwalk and has views of the Statue of Liberty, said the restaurant planned to stay open all weekend but would tie down deck furniture.

“We’re fully stocked up for the weekend,” said manager Christian Qualey, “so we can be a safe place for people.”

Additional reporting by Jonathan Spicer, Lynn Adler and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Sandra Maler

Destroyed New Orleans synagogue to break ground


A New Orleans synagogue destroyed by Hurricane Katrina will break ground on a new building.

Congregation Beth Israel, a century-old congregation destroyed by the 2005 storm, will mark the occasion on Sunday at a new location five miles from its former home.

“Since Katrina, our job has been to rebuild a sense of community within our congregation,” said Rabbi Uri Topolosky in a news release. “Now we have to build a building and give our family a home.”

Beth Israel’s old building absorbed ten feet of water during the 2005 hurricane which destroyed vast swaths of New Orleans. Its contents, including thousands of prayer books and seven Torah scrolls, were also lost.

The land for the new synagogue was purchased from a nearby Reform congregation, Gates of Prayer.

UJC seeks donations for hurricane victims


United Jewish Communities begun a campaign for donations to help in the recovery from recent hurricanes.

The umbrella organization of North America’s Jewish federation system is urging the 157 federations and 400 independent Jewish communities it serves to contribute to the effort, which will go to help Jewish communities in the country’s coastal region that were affected by the hurricanes and to nonsectarian relief efforts.

Initial relief will go toward short-term disaster needs such as food, water and medicines, and for intermediate needs such as mental-health counseling and other counseling, according to the UJC’s emergency committee chair, Fred Zimmerman. Other needs will be determined.

UJC staff have spoken daily with the president and chief executive officer of the Jewish federation in Houston, Lee Wunsch, as well as to community leaders elsewhere.

In an effort to coordinate a response to the storm, UJC also has talked with Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff; national, state and local relief agencies; and national Jewish groups and religious movements.

Initial reports said the community in Corpus Christi, Texas, was safe following Hurricane Ike over the weekend, according to UJC. Also in Texas, efforts were continuing to reach Jewish evacuees in Galveston—one report emerged over the weekend that people were trapped in a flooded synagogue there. UJC coordinated with local and federal law enforcement agencies, who investigated and reported the synagogue was empty.

Checks should be mailed to United Jewish Communities, P.O. Box 30, Old Chelsea Station, New York, NY 10113, Attention: UJC Hurricane Relief Fund, or go to www.ujc.org to make online donations.

Realities of poverty and devastation in the Katrina-affected Gulf are still unchanged


It’s a long way from the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills to the Mount Olive Baptist Church in Plaquemines Parish, La., and the divide is more than geographic.

Having participated in the Milken Conference in April and traveled to Plaquemines two weeks later, I was struck by the chasm between the viewpoints expressed in these two locales, a divide that I believe underscores one of the most significant challenges to full and meaningful recovery for the Gulf region.

While businesspeople and politicians tout the resurrection of tourism, as well as the strong Gulf business climate and plans for cutting-edge educational reform, families like those who worship at the Mount Olive Baptist Church confront a stunning failure to rebuild the low-income residential communities wiped out by the storms.

The utter devastation that still exists in the low-income neighborhoods of New Orleans and the surrounding rural areas stands in marked contrast to the revitalization discussed in boardrooms: In these poor areas it looks as if the storms just hit, and the vast majority of the families who lived in them are no closer to coming home than they were immediately following the disaster. The policy leaders paint an optimistic picture.

It was tempting to leave the late-April Milken Conference panel on “Rebuilding After Katrina” with a genuine sense of encouragement. In the midst of this conference of Nobel laureates, business titans and national political figures, the loftiness of the credentials of this panel were rivaled only by that of their optimism about the future of the Gulf region.

Scott Cowen, president of Tulane University, described New Orleans’ schools as being in the midst of the most significant and exciting educational transformation in the United States. Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Mitch Landrieu, Louisiana lieutenant governor, agreed that nearly 90 percent of the businesses in the region are doing the same or better than before the storms. And everyone was excited about a plan to turn the New Orleans’ waterfront into a modern, world-class center of culture and commerce.

Yet, alarmingly, the rebuilding of residential communities in the Gulf region seemed to be entirely off their radar screens. When repeatedly questioned about this, they did not identify any plan for repairing or replacing housing and could not describe any progress to date. Eventually, they mustered a vague response calling for a new federal “Marshall Plan” for the Gulf, Plaquemines Parish and New Orleans’ “Lower Nine.”

Beginning in September 2005, Bet Tzedek Legal Services helped spearhead a major initiative to assist evacuees from the Gulf region. More than 2,500 families came to Southern California after the storms, yet many seemed to leave as quickly as they arrived, often without any forwarding address or phone number.

As we read reports of local government permitting people to return to previously sealed areas, we assumed that many of the families we helped had gone home.

In fact, the stark reality is that less than half of New Orleans’ low-income families and fewer than 25 percent of rural Louisianans are back in their homes.

People like Mt. Olive Pastor Ted Turner (not to be confused with media mogul Ted Turner who spoke at the Milken Conference) are still waiting in cramped FEMA trailers or with extended family and friends miles away from their homes and communities. Many homes remain uninhabitable but undemolished, while others like Turner’s have nothing left but the foundation.

Two weeks after the Milken Conference, I traveled with Reboot and Jewish Funds for Justice to Louisiana. We started the trip in Plaquemines Parish, the southernmost tip of Louisiana, a peninsula barely a mile wide between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

We stayed for two nights with Turner at his church and strapped on safety glasses and masks to help rebuild a congregant’s house. We toured neighborhoods utterly leveled by the storms and saw schools and supermarkets whose frames remained standing but whose interiors were torn to shreds. We saw giant shrimp boats sitting on top of each other on dry land hundreds of yards from their moorings.

It was a very different picture than the one described by the panel at the Milken Conference.

Turner told us that the parish is a wonderful place to live. His great-grandfather was a slave in Plaquemines, and he himself was born there.

It’s a place where people stop their cars to say “hi,” with an active oil refinery that still employs many parish residents. Turner had managed to rebuild his church, but, like many others we met, his insurance has refused to pay to rebuild his home, and he is faced with the threat of foreclosure. We couldn’t help but note that the lender would be foreclosing on a slab of concrete where the pastor’s family home once stood.

We also traveled to the Lower Nine, where the devastation was similarly vast.

On blocks that were not wiped entirely clean, crumbling houses leaned against each other and awaited demolition. Aside from the 10 or so new, pastel-colored homes in Habitat for Humanity’s Musicians Village, it seemed like nothing had happened since the storm, aside from the partial removal of the debris that once coated the streets, sidewalks and roofs.

In Plaquemines, the failure to rebuild could be based on benign neglect; worse still, in the Lower Nine, the lack of restoration seems to have been by design: Until late March, just a month before our visit, the recovery manager of New Orleans had slated this historically residential area to be returned to wetlands. Only after significant pressure from community organizers and residents did he announce his intention to rebuild this area. The plan has not yet been specified.

Where is the leadership?

Rebuilding New Orleans — With A Little Help From Each Other


One year after “the storm,” as New Orleanians refer to Hurricane Katrina, Jewish communal leaders describe the health of the community with certain expected terms — loss, trauma, devastation and challenge.

Unexpected is the word “blessed,” used repeatedly in reference to the outpouring from the American Jewish community of financial support, volunteerism and donations of everything from teddy bears to challah covers.

Funds from the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella of the North American federation system, and the national religious movements have kept New Orleans’ Jewish agencies and synagogues afloat this past year and are expected to do so through 2007.

To date, the UJC has contributed more than $17 million to the rebuilding efforts; the Reform movement has contributed some $800,000 to local Reform congregations, with another $800,000 available for recovery efforts not covered by insurance. Other movements have sent funds as well, although exact figures were not available.

What will happen in 2008 and beyond is the worry that both drives many planning meetings during the day and keeps communal leaders up at night.

“Fortunately, the Jewish community has not had to depend on the help of government, given its failure at all levels,” said Allan Bissinger, president of the New Orleans federation. “UJC has taken the place of what the government should normally have done.”

Roselle Ungar, interim executive director of the federation, said, “What UJC and the many generous contributions from individuals across the country have given us is the opportunity to take a deep breath, step back and take the time to make the hard decisions that will be necessary, so that in 2008 we can stand on our own two feet again.”

A community-wide task force is in the beginning stages of implementing a recovery plan. The plan focuses on such issues as how to retain current residents while encouraging new ones to resettle in New Orleans. It also is determining how the organized Jewish community can work smarter to make the best use of limited dollars.

One of the positive outgrowths of the storm has been the burgeoning spirit of cooperation among all the New Orleans Jewish institutions. Beth Israel Congregation, the Orthodox synagogue that took on 10 feet of water, is now holding a Shabbat minyan at the Reform Gates of Prayer Congregation.

The Anti-Defamation League is sharing federation office space. Interagency programs are on the upswing, and a Hebrew free-loan program is in the works. The JCC is getting needed revenue by renting out its facilities to community groups.

Tackling the population issue will not be as easy. Current estimates are that the Jewish community will stabilize at about 65 percent its pre-storm strength of about 10,000 individuals.

Although there are no hard and fast data about the population exodus, the increasing number of “For sale” signs attests to residents’ continued impatience with the slow pace of recovery, frustration with the government and concern about the rising crime rate. And it would be difficult to exaggerate the impact another hurricane would have on people’s decisions to move.

Although all age groups have joined this exodus, one particular cohort — those in their 60s and 70s with grown children in other communities — has been leaving in large numbers.

Communal officials count the loss of these individuals particularly troublesome because these are the big machers — those with the money and the time to make significant contributions. Every institution has lost some of its biggest donors and officers.

At the same time, each of the five synagogues surveyed has reported new members, mostly young people drawn by the pioneer spirit of rebuilding and the opportunity to make a difference.

Indeed, despite the loss of members, synagogue attendance seems to have remained stable. As Rabbi Andrew Busch of the Reform congregation, Touro Synagogue, put it, “In their new lives after the storm, people have a greater need to come together in the synagogue.”

Rabbi Ted Lichtenfeld of Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation agreed.
“Though I have not had people battering down my door for pastoral counseling, in a sense, the storm underlines everything,” he said. “Fortunately, very few of my congregants lost family members to the storm, but most are rebuilding their homes and almost everyone’s job was affected in one way or the other. That is taking up so much of their energy. They come to synagogue to be in community.”

Undaunted by the storm, Chabad-Lubavitch of Louisiana has committed to build a new student center at Tulane University; the cornerstone ceremony is scheduled to be held Aug. 27, two days before the storm’s anniversary.

The New Orleans Jewish Day School, a community school supported by the federation, has been hit hard by the population exodus. From a pre-storm enrollment of nearly 90 children in kindergarten through eighth grade, it will begin the coming school year with 23 children in just two classes: a combined kindergarten-first grade and a second-third grade class. This precipitous decrease comes despite a halving of tuition, made possible by outside contributions.

Because the local Jewish Family Service (JFS) helps individuals cope with the challenges in their lives by providing counseling and financial support, it has been a lead agency in the post-storm year.

And it has transformed its way of doing business.

Although it had always provided small grants of $500 to $1,000 to individuals in need, that activity increased exponentially over the past year, when it distributed $900,000 in UJC funds directly to individuals affected by the storm, according to agency officials.

By requiring individuals to come to the JFS office to pick up their checks, JFS staff had the opportunity to see how recipients were doing, to hear their concerns and to offer help that went beyond the financial.

Anne Freedman, associate director of JFS, said of its clients: “All that some people needed was the chance to cry and tell their story to the staff, people who really understood them because they had gone through the same thing.”

“Many people were so used to giving to others that they were embarrassed about accepting aid,” she said. “I would tell them that the sooner they were made whole, the sooner they could be back to their traditional role of helping others.”

The traditional counseling role of JFS has changed as well. With many families now living with several generations while their homes are being repaired, more clients are coming in for family counseling. In Baton Rouge, which received many older evacuees, JFS plans social events that bring isolated older adults together; the JCC in New Orleans puts on similar activities.

The agency’s suicide prevention and education program, Teen Life Counts, is needed more than ever. One volunteer reported that pre-Katrina, when she would ask high-schoolers what they thought of teens who committed suicide, they would characterize them as selfish and foolish. This past year, the responses were much more sympathetic. She heard students say, for example, that peers who committed suicide “must be real sad because their parents were crying all the time.”

Yet, even against the backdrop of government incompetence and uncertain levees, many residents are buoyed by optimism.

On a recent Sunday, community members gathered in the afternoon for a chanukat habayit, a home dedication ceremony in which a mezuzah is hung, for Georgette Somjen, a physician moving to town. Later, a brit milah was celebrated for the son of Gary and Susan Lazarus, who are committed to remaining in New Orleans.

Dan Alexander, a fourth-generation New Orleanian, and his wife, Lazelle, also a native, attended both celebrations.

Katrina destroyed their home and surrounding neighborhood, where they had lived for 43 years. The house was bulldozed a few weeks ago.

An 81-year-old retired public schoolteacher, Dan Alexander, said, “When you lose your home, it is like losing a relative.”

Buying and moving into a new house was “the farthest thing from my mind,” he said. “But what’s the alternative? You have to move on and establish a whole new type of existence.”

Declaring that he and his wife are satisfied in their new home, he added: “I couldn’t have made these changes without the support of Lazelle and my family and the community. We just have to be strong and work together as a team.”

Building Homes, Building Hope


The prophet Isaiah asks: “What is the house which you would build for Me, and what is the place of My rest?” (Isaiah 66:1). In the days following the Easter and Passover holidays, 41 Angelenos traveled to the Gulf Coast to translate their faith into action. We were rabbis and pastors, African Americans and Jewish Americans, high school seniors and senior adults, synagogue and church members from 12 Los Angeles congregations who rebuilt homes in Gulfport, Miss.

We spent our days building and rebuilding roofs — separated into teams of eager “rookie roofers” under the patient supervision of AmeriCorps volunteers. In short order we were on the rooftop tearing off old shingles and tar paper, and replacing them with new materials. The work was hard, the heat and humidity intense. Few of us had prior construction experience, and many of us had never even been on the roofs of our own homes. But we were determined to finish “our roofs” before we left Gulfport. By week’s end, our volunteers had built six new roofs valued at $30,000 for uninsured or underinsured homeowners in the region.

The individuals and families we helped shared their moving stories of struggle and survival during and after Katrina. “Bob” described his 12-hour ordeal as the hurricane battered his house, and vowed never again to ignore evacuation orders. He lost his job at a federal facility that was destroyed in the hurricane and has no other job prospects. Bob lives day by day as he contemplates an uncertain future.

“Cheryl” is a single mom who has a job but lacks the funds to fix her leaky roof. The night before our site visit, a powerful thunderstorm blew through Gulfport and water crashed through the ceiling of Cheryl’s modest home. Our crew rebuilt her roof in one day, preventing further damage to the interior of the house. However, it will take years to heal the psychological and emotional scars borne by Cheryl and her family.

Everywhere we traveled along the coast, we witnessed heartbreaking scenes of devastation. We passed gutted churches that are now mere shells of formerly majestic houses of worship; twisted and dangling signs identifying businesses that are heaps of rubble; ruins of mansions and homes that are reminiscent of a war zone; front yards adorned with trailers whose occupants worry about how they will survive the next storm.

Through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, the people of the Gulf Coast have met with tragic circumstances. The storm robbed them of homes and livelihoods, battered their dignity and in many cases left them for dead. The people we met have lost faith in FEMA, their insurance companies, their government, and so many others who have let them down over and over again. But the Jewish and African Methodist Episcopal Church communities of Los Angeles — two diverse groups working together — had compassion on the people of Gulfport and worked together to make a difference.

By repairing roofs, we helped to bandage their stricken community. Beyond the financial contributions our groups have previously made to the relief effort, by shouldering our neighbors’ burdens, we offered something equally as important: hope. That hope was seen in the eyes of the homeowners that we served and felt through the prayers and tears they offered as thanks for our assistance.

This journey was a lesson in faith and partnership. Our partners in Mississippi included the amazing young men and women of AmeriCorps, who devote one to two years of their lives in volunteer service for their fellow Americans. Our hosts were the staff and congregants of Westminster Presbyterian Church, which has transformed itself into a 24/7 center for volunteer relief groups. One of the church elders told us that he is especially pleased to welcome Jewish groups to the church, since he is a leader in ongoing efforts to overturn the divestment resolutions of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

This mission was a lesson in spirit and fellowship. The region’s sole Jewish congregation and B’nai B’rith chapter warmly welcomed us to their annual Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) commemoration, held in a Methodist church while the synagogue awaits repair. As the multifaith, multiracial congregation read the names of Holocaust victims, we prayed that we honor their memories by building bonds of faith and friendship between Los Angeles and the Gulf Coast.

We also built strong and sure bonds within our L.A. delegation — between African Americans and Jewish Americans; between Jews and Christians and their congregations; among Conservative, Orthodox and Reform Jews and their synagogues. Too often it takes a crisis or disaster for people of diverse races, religions and cultures to draw closer to God and to one another. Sometimes it takes a trip away from home to remind neighbors to celebrate their differences and their shared destiny as God’s children.

We returned home with a pledge to work together to meet the needs of our community in Los Angeles, even as we remember the needs of the Gulf Coast. The lives and struggles of the people we met are daily reminders of the sacred mandate to rebuild our broken world. We will not rest until the community has healed.

On June 4, the first Sunday of the 2006 hurricane season, churches and synagogues throughout Louisiana and in all cities with major concentrations of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita evacuees will join together in remembrance of those who were lost and to raise awareness of those still missing from the storms. For more information, e-mail findfamilypio@dhh.la.gov.

The Rev. Kevin Taylor is associate minister of Grant AME Church in Los Angeles. Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. The Mississippi trip was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, The Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee and the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Ministerial Association.

 

The Road to Mississippi


Driving through the deserted streets of New Orleans, we peered through the windows of our charter bus and watched as we drove past miles of destroyed homes. As we approached our destination, Waveland, Miss., the houses became increasingly tattered and decayed; on some lots, only kitchen floors remained. As we approached the shore and our worksite came into view, the entire bus was silenced by the broad stretches of land where only the scattered debris of homes remained.

We were 100 sophomores and juniors from Milken Community High School who traveled to the Gulf Coast April 2-6 to help rebuild areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina. We were sponsored by Milken’s Yozma (initiative) Leadership for Social Action program, which, every year, arranges a project to assist those in need.

Stepping off the bus in Waveland, we were handed shovels and gloves by volunteers for the Gulf Side Assembly of the United Methodist Church. For the next six hours, we submerged ourselves in strenuous physical labor, leaving our sheltered-life inhibitions on the air-conditioned bus. While clearing the site of destruction, we came across pieces of lives left behind. Our eyes lingered on purple Mardi Gras beads crusted with dirt, and dresses hanging on tree limbs. Instead of buildings there were scattered tiles, buried wires and remains of refrigerators and toilet seats.

Cleaning the site at Waveland was our first encounter with the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. In the next few days, we also were exposed to the aftermath of the hurricane in the small cities of Natchez and Utica in Mississippi. In those places, we undertook social action projects to support the Jewish and secular local communities both emotionally and financially.

Some in our group began by going to the local Wal-Mart and filling shopping carts with items requested by a shelter, while keeping within a $45 budget. The money we were spending was taken from the $15,000 Milken students had raised to help the citizens of Natchez, which we had adopted as our sister city.

In our short visit to Wal-Mart, we witnessed a culture drastically unlike our own. Many of the residents were poverty stricken, and we were surprised by their habit of counting every last penny of change. They in turn were surprised by our willingness to contribute our own time and money to help people whom we have never met.

Wal-Mart was not the last place we encountered poverty. On another day, we traveled to residential areas where we worked alongside volunteers of Habitat for Humanity to rebuild damaged homes. Families of at least five lived in houses that resembled shacks. The news became reality; we were finally seeing the destruction we were never able to picture.

Although residents of Natchez were affected by devastation and lack of supplies, they succeeded in maintaining faith and spirit. On a Tuesday night, we joined the AME Zion Chapel for a gospel service. We sang along with the gospel choir with the sense that religion and race were unimportant. We were unified by our past experiences of slavery and struggle. Seeing the grateful congregation inspired us to appreciate our own lives and to hope that soon, all of those affected by the hurricane would recover and restore their rich culture.

We have been repeatedly asked, “Why are you going all the way to Mississippi? If you want to help, why don’t you just donate money?”

The answer lies in the power of human connection. Our mere presence in Mississippi gave hope to the community there, which has been ignored by the media and fellow Americans. Money could never replace the relationship formed between Milken and the Natchez community. Not only did we each learn about Southern culture and get to know people there, but we discovered that we have the ability to overcome personal limits and fears. The trip to Mississippi opened our eyes to a culture unlike our own and pushed us out of our comfort zones. In the process we built a friendship with the grateful people of Natchez. It is an experience that will forever stay with us.

Sophia Kamran and Eve Arbel are 10th graders at Milken Community High School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the June issue is May 15; Deadline for the July issue is June 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

 

The Circuit


A World of Food

World Ethnic Market/KosherWorld Show manager Phyllis Koegel presented a Buyer of the Year Award to Tamara Dorrell, Safeway manager, national categories, ethnic. The World Ethnic Market was held recently at the Anaheim Convention Center.

L.A. Helps the Gulf

Four members of Temple Beth El in San Pedro took a hands-on approach to charity when they went on a relief mission to Gulfport, Miss., last week. The four accompanied Rabbi Charles Briskin to help in rebuilding and reconstruction efforts for the coastal city devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Briskin, along with Alan Rowe of San Pedro, Vicki Hulbert of Palos Verdes Estates, Ben Pogorelsky of Rolling Hills Estates and David Burton of Rancho Santa Margarita, are part of a citywide delegation of Jews and Christians participating in this relief mission sponsored by the Southern California Board of Rabbis, the Jewish Community Relations Committee of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Grant A.M.E. Church and the Southern California A.M.E. Ministerial Alliance.

“Tikkun Olam, the ethical imperative to work to repair the world by responding to crisis and the needs of the larger community is one of Judaism’s central values,” Briskin said. “By going to Gulfport, we are doing our small part to repair, literally, one small corner of our world.”

Briskin said he hopes not only to contribute time, energy and labor, but also to return home with valuable lessons learned about the faith, hope and cooperation that prevails within this devastated region.

For more information, call (310) 833-2467 or e-mail; rabbibriskin@bethelsp.org.

Consulate’s “Israel 101”

The L.A. consulate general of Israel hosted a group of 40 sixth-graders from Pressman Academy for an “Israel 101” event before their class field trip to Israel next month. Students participated in Israeli dancing, word association games, videos and an educational skit highlighting Israel’s high-tech industry, performed by members of the consulate staff. Apart from the mouthwatering Israeli chocolates, the students got a special treat when Consul General Ehud Danoch greeted them and emphasized that while the scenery and holy sites would undoubtedly leave an impression on them, it will be the connections they make with their Israeli counterparts that will most affect them. During their 10-day tour of Israel the students will experience the action of Tel Aviv, the majesty of Jerusalem and Masada, and catch a glimpse of life on a kibbutz.

Just Smile

It was Lladro&tilde and African dishes recently on Rodeo Drive when Lladro&tilde, the renowned Spanish house of porcelain, joined forces with Operation Smile to raise money for free reconstructive facial surgery to children in developing countries worldwide. A special porcelain sculpture, “Let Me Help You,” was formally unveiled at a VIP reception at the Lladro&tilde Rodeo Drive Boutique.

To set the mood for the African trip, Lladro which will sponsor it with the funds raised, transformed the boutique into a visual homage to the Kenyan landscape in blues, reds, yellows and oranges to reflect a Kenyan sunset, while Barbuda trees recreated the greenery native to the region. Guests enjoyed African music, and cocktails and sampled unusual goodies, like groundnut soup garnished with tiny bananas, Nyama Choma (barbecued meat in the Kariokor style), M’Chuzi Wa Kuku (coconut chicken), Smaki Na Nazi (coconut fish), Samosa (meat-filled pastries) and Irio (a pea, corn and potato dish served as a minipancake, topped with East African salad relish).

OK, I am not certain if it was kosher, but I would have to pronounce it to ask, but I do know the food was yummy and the desserts amazing. Great stuff like, Mini Mount Kenya’s (minicoupe with peach ice cream topped with diced, rum-soaked pineapple; mango, and a dollop of whipped cream) and Mahamri (fried dough with powdered sugar). What could be bad about a doughnut with powdered sugar?

On hand were celebs like Operation Smile spokeswoman and angelic actress Roma Downey, who was with her husband, super- reality show guru Mark Burnett; Kathleen Magee, co-founder, Operation Smile; Bill Magee, son of co-founders Kathleen and William Magee; Safa Hummel, CEO, Lladro USA; Beverly Hills Mayor Stephen Webb; Vice Mayor Jimmy Delshad, and Lorraine Bradley, L.A. City human relations commissioner (and daughter of former Mayor Tom Bradley).

Lladro’s goal is to raise $150,000 by donating 10 percent of the retail price of all nationwide sales of the “Let Me Help You” sculpture between March and October 2006. For more information, visit

Class Notes – Hurricane Heroes


Sarah Rose Isenberg had a sure-fire marketing plan and a product no one could object to. So the fact that she took in hundreds of dollars in a few hours wouldn’t be surprising — if she weren’t 7 years old.

In the days before her lemonade sale to raise money for victims of Hurricane Katrina, Isenberg went door to door in her Sherman Oaks neighborhood delivering hand-written letters inviting her neighbors to support those who lost their homes. On the letter she drew a picture of a hurricane.

On Sunday, Sept. 11, one neighbor who came with a $100 contribution said she’d put the letter up on the fridge. Another elderly woman came not only to drink lemonade, but to deliver a donation from another neighbor, who was too frail to come herself.

Isenberg donated her $609.97 to The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles’ hurricane relief fund.

Such kid-driven efforts have brought tears of pride to parents, educators and tzedakah recipients since Katrina struck.

At Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, kids filled 150 backpacks with new school supplies — and a small toy or candy — for children who had to settle in to new schools at a moment’s notice.

Kids at Pressman Academy in Los Angeles packed and sent 100 backpacks, while also donating 27 teddy bears they crafted at Build-a-Bear’s Westside Pavilion store, which discounted the donated bears. A schoolwide project at Pressman involved assembling and packing personal toiletry kits — a Ziploc bag with toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo and deodorant — to be sent to shelters.

Families absorbed locally at the Dream Center in Echo Park received welcome cards from students at Valley Beth Shalom day school. The student council also organized a walk-a-thon that raised $7,500 for Katrina victims.

Students at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy have collected more than $5,000 for a Katrina relief fund, through a student council cookie sale in the carpool line, weekend lemonade stands and donated proceeds from bar and bat mitzvah gifts.

As for Isenberg, she proved to have a knack for courteous follow-through as well as fundraising. Within a week, she’d delivered hand-written thank you notes to all her customers.

Early Childhood at Kadima

With their new, permanent facility now in operation for a year, Kadima Hebrew Academy in Woodland Hills initiated an early childhood program this fall. The new Early Childhood Center (ECC) serves children ages 2 and older. Previously, the school offered only a Pre-K class for 4-year-olds.

“This space enabled us to fulfill a vision we had all along of nurturing our future students and their families,” said Dr. Barbara Gereboff, head of school. “Research shows the importance of early-childhood education as pivotal to helping children.”

The center, which can accommodate 52 children, is fully enrolled.

The ECC facilities include an outdoor area where children can ride bikes, play on a jungle gym, plant in the garden or paint on easels.

“Kids learn all over,” said Hanna Livni, early childhood director, who described the space as an “outdoor classroom.” Inside, the rooms are filled with new furniture , toys and school supplies.

For more information, visit www.kadimaacademy.org or call (818) 346-0849. — Nancy Sokoler Steiner, Contributing Writer

You can reach Julie Gruenbaum Fax at julief@jewishjournal.com or (213) 368-1661, ext. 206.

The Year Ahead


We have had a sad ending to 5765 — devastating hurricanes and a continuing war in Iraq. Here is a blessing for the New Year, 5766: May we all experience an end to war and a new beginning for the people of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and all those who have suffered. And let us keep finding ways to help those in need with our tzedakah and our love.

Young Hearts

For the next few weeks, I will highlight the wonderful projects created by our very own Jewish day schools to help the Hurricane Katrina victims. This week’s page belongs to Temple Israel of Hollywood.

The students at Temple Israel have raised funds from bagel sales as part of their Katrina relief effort. In addition to this, they are collecting coins in cooler-size water bottles. When the bottles are full, they will send them off to the hurricane survivors. If you would like to donate sheets and towels to survivors, please contact Temple Israel of Hollywood at (323) 876 8330.

Don’t Blow It!

Rosh Hashanah Riddle:

I wear a crown

If you cut me I’ll bleed,

But the rubies inside me

Are sweet treasures you’ll need!

Who am I?

Congrats

Aaron Rifkind, 11, answered Abby’s Amazing Summer question. Josh Field won the Amazing Summer Essay Contest.

He wins a gift certificate to Barnes and Noble.

Fundraiser to Benefit Storm Victims


This Sunday, September 18th!

LALA & MOE’S

Jewish Experience & The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles Present:

LA Jewish Katrina Benefit

All Proceeds To Benefit Jewish Federation’s Hurricane Relief Fund

Featuring:

The Moshav Band

Comic Relief by:

Edgar Fox
Avi Leiberman
Plus Special Guests

Silent Auction, Special Prize Drawing, Kosher Food, And More!

Sunday September 18th 2005
3:00 – 7:00 PM
Westside Jewish Community Center
5870 W Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles Ca, 90036

$25 Adults
$15 Students & Families
Space is Limited

For More information Contact:

Danwitz@LMJE.org

Community Sponsors Include:

Anti-Defamation League
Aish Ha-Torah
Ashreinu
Congregation Beth Jacob
Congregation B’nei David Judea
Congregation Mogen David
Isralight
Jewish big brothers
Jflicks
Los Angeles Hillel Council
The Chai Center
The Westwood Kehilla
Young Israel of Century City
And Many More

 

We Must Condemn Heartless Bilge


“It is not in our hands to explain the prosperity of the wicked or even the sufferings of the righteous.” So said Rabbi Yannai in the Mishna some 2,000 years ago. The Talmud (Kiddushin 39b) insists “there is no reward for mitzvot in this world.” We have had a long time to read and understand the Book of Job, and we know that the calculus of reward and punishment is more perplexing and agonizing than we can know.

Than we can know, but not, apparently, than Rav Ovadiah Yosef, a former chief rabbi of Israel, can know. Rav Ovadiah is an ilui, a genius of halacha.

His memory is astonishing, his range remarkable. Unfortunately, his theology is appalling.

American citizens died in the hurricane, according to Rav Ovadiah, because President Bush supported the pullout from Gush Katif. Just in case there was a corner of decency that was left unoffended, Rav Ovadiah went on to say that the devastation of Katrina was also punishment for lack of Torah study, since after all, kushim, that is black people, don’t study Torah. To hope that he would revise his opinion of even that egregious statement in light of the Ethiopian population of Israel is apparently too much to expect.

If this were the isolated opinion of an older man, whose crotchets are overcoming his considered judgments, it would not merit comment. But such pronouncements are not new for Rav Ovadiah, and other rabbis have astonishingly concurred in this opinion. His influence is great, and so must be the reaction against such theological thuggery.

It is painful to contemplate that a learned rabbi could be so parochial, so narrow, so besotted with our tiny people alone that he chooses to pour rhetorical venom on the victims of a hurricane half a world away. I yearn to hear repudiations, not from secular Jews, but from those who look to Rav Ovadiah as a guide and a mentor.

This is the worst kind of cruel speech in the name of God, a religious racism that forgets the words of Amos, “Are you not as the children of the Ethiopians to me, O children of Israel?” (Amos ch. 9). Apparently Rav Ovadiah knows something Amos does not, for in his remarks he used the same Hebrew word, kushim, as did the great prophet.

There is no more poisonous strain in contemporary religious life than leaders declaring “deserved” death.

Hurricanes are weapons in the hands of an angry or disappointed God? When Christian fundamentalist preachers offer up such justifications, we rise to condemn them, and ask decent Christians to do the same. It is our turn.

Imagine the victims who lost home, possessions, family — the mother bereaved of her children and the child mourning his father — who would not blanche at the callousness that attributes their anguish to the displacement of 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip? The heavens weep for that part of our tradition that could persuade a leader, a venerated rabbi, to spout this heartless bilge.

No one who quotes Rav Ovadiah as an authority or who treats his name with respect ought to be permitted to sidestep this issue. It is imperative that these statements be condemned not by those who are outside his circle, but by the community of those who learn from him and venerate him.

It strikes to the heart of our tradition to believe that God drowned citizens in New Orleans because of Divine ire over Israel’s policy of disengagement from Gaza. Where are the rabbis to rise up and say, “This is cruel, this is wrong, this must not be permitted?”

About a year ago, I received an appeal. Rav Ovadiah, whose discourses were carried on the web, had lost funding, and they were to be discontinued. Would I contribute to keep this Torah scholar’s teachings available to all? I sent in a contribution.

I wish I had it back. I’d send it to the victims of New Orleans. Judaism is not about finding reasons why God is making people suffer. Judaism is about finding ways to help them.

David Wolpe is rabbi of Sinai Temple in Westwood and the author of several books, including “Floating Takes Faith: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World” (Behrman House, 2004).

 

Nation & World Briefs


Federation Sets Up Hurricane Fund

The United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh (UJF) has established a mailbox to accept donations for humanitarian aid for members of the Jewish and general communities impacted by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Western Florida.

Characterized by authorities as one of the most powerful hurricanes in U.S. history, Katrina battered Louisiana’s southeastern shore Monday morning, killing dozens, after first taking at least nine lives as it swept across South Florida on Thursday. Homes and businesses across the entire region have suffered massive damage.

The United Jewish Communities (UJC), UJF’s national partner agency, is working with federations in the affected regions. These federations are unprepared to handle donations and request that money be sent instead to such organizations as the UJF.

These federations will assess damage and help coordinate relief; UJC will serve as the conduit for distributing all funds collected by the Pittsburgh federation.

“When natural disasters have hit, the Jewish community has always been at the forefront of responding,” said Jeff Finkelstein, UJF president and CEO.”Just as our community reacted with such generosity to the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia last December, we anticipate an outpouring of concern once again from many in our community.

“Hurricane Katrina’s full impact is not yet fully realized,” he added, “and damages are already set in the billions. The emotional toll — and the damage to property and other tangibles — is likely to be well beyond anything we can imagine.”

For more information, visit www.ujfpittsburgh.org.

Terror Attack in Beersheba

After months of focusing on its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Israel returned to an all-too-familiar experience this week: Palestinian terror.

A suicide bomber wounded 20 people Sunday at the central bus station in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, the first such attack since the just-completed evacuation of settlements from Gaza and the northern West Bank.

It could have been bloodier. The bomber was blocked from boarding a bus, thanks to the vigilance of two guards who chased him away. Both were seriously hurt.

P.A. to Rename Settlements

The Palestinian Authority plans to rename Gaza Strip settlements after Yasser Arafat and Sheik Ahmed Yassin. Palestinian officials said this week that Arafat, the late Palestinian Authority president, and Yassin, the late founder of Hamas, were among the “martyrs” who would be honored in renaming the 21 settlements, most of which Israel built on empty land and which therefore did not have prior Arabic names. The Palestinian Authority is divided on a proposal to rename some settlements after suicide bombers, fearing that doing so risks alienating world opinion.

Gaza Protester Dies

An Israeli woman who set herself alight to protest the Gaza Strip withdrawal died. The 54-year-old West Bank resident succumbed Friday to injuries sustained Aug. 7 when she doused herself with kerosene and lit it at a police checkpoint outside Gaza. Police described the incident as a protest suicide. The woman was to be buried in her home settlement of Kedumim. She was the only Israeli fatality linked to the withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank, despite early predictions that the evacuation could spark bloodshed.

Kfar Darom Detainees Freed

Israel has freed scores of pro-settlement activists arrested during a violent Gaza Strip confrontation. A Beersheba court released the 175 detainees, almost a quarter of them minors, last week after they signed agreements not to take part in violent political protests. The decision to free the detainees, who were arrested after holing up on the roof of a synagogue in the Kfar Darom settlement last week as part of protests against the Gaza withdrawal, ran counter to earlier police pledges to see them prosecuted to the fullest extent.

Army to Eye Extremists

The Israeli army resolved to scrutinize extremists and potential terrorists among its conscripts. An internal military query into the Aug. 4 killing by an army deserter of four Israeli Arabs concluded Thursday that authorities failed to respond properly to warnings by the soldier’s family as well as an investigative reporter that he had become a right-wing extremist and was liable to resort to violence. Under the panel’s recommendations, which were accepted by top brass, the armed forces will work more closely with the Shin Bet’s Jewish Division, which monitors potential extremist threats. The army also will empower training officers to profile conscripts believed to have extremist political views and report them to higher authorities.

Briefs courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.