Rabbi Consoles Hurricane Survivors

Rabbi Isaac Jeret, president of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI), and members of Adat Israel in Naples, Fla. headed out to a Naples beach to observe Tashlich on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Everyone stared in shock before the service began.

The beach was gone.

"This was a community that spent millions of dollars repumping the beaches with sand, and there was none," said Jeret, who led High Holiday services at Adat Israel. "There were a lot of people in tears at the beach. It was the first time they had seen the erosion."

The beach was one of the many casualties of this hurricane season, which, according to the Miami Herald, is the worst the state has experienced since 1886. The triple-threat of hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan walloped Florida within a five-week period, leaving 65 people dead and doing billions of dollars in damage to homes and buildings. Entire communities were bereft of citizens as millions evacuated their homes to escape the storms.

For the Jewish community, Ivan meant shuttered synagogues on Rosh Hashanah. Many of the synagogues in Ivan’s path in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and the Florida panhandle canceled their Rosh Hashanah services altogether. Those that stayed open had significantly smaller turnouts than in years past, and some were without electricity.

In Naples, Adat Israel, an unaffiliated Conservative synagogue, considered canceling its services because so many of their congregants evacuated the city. Naples was directly in Charley’s path, but it escaped being hit. And although it was not directly in the path of Ivan or Frances, cities like Port Charlotte only 70 miles north, were hit hard, and many Naples residents boarded up their houses and fled.

Adat Israel decided to stay open, and bring Jeret from California to lead the services. Prior to taking the job with BBI, Jeret was a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, a synagogue in Palm Beach, and he helped the Naples community build their synagogue.

"We felt that even if there was a small group of people here who wanted or needed [Rosh Hashanah services], we needed to provide them," said Sheri Samotin, the synagogue’s president.

Adat Israel attracted about 60 people.

"We are used to approaching the High Holidays with a sense of concern. This community approached the High Holidays for refuge," Jeret said. "The mood I encountered [in the synagogue] was one of spiritual exhaustion, the likes of which I had never seen."

Instead of giving a traditional sermon, Jeret opened up the floor to the congregants to talk about what they had been through with the hurricanes. He did this, he said "under the dark cloud of tropical storm Jeanne," which has now killed nearly 700 people in Haiti.

"They needed to talk," Jeret said. "They were entering the High Holidays with real fear for the existence of the community, fear for their homes and their lives. One of the kids said to me that it was extremely hard for her to go to sleep for the past week, and her parents were standing next to her, and they said it was hard for them, too. The fear of anticipation was far worse than the actual event."

"The discussions lasted about one hour each, and I usually don’t give sermons for longer than 12 minutes," he said.

By the second day, Jeret said the conversation shifted to strengthening the Jewish community and the Jewish experience in Naples.

Jeret said that many of the buildings in Naples were relatively new and able to withstand the fierce winds and the rain, but all over the city he saw palm trees with their tops snapped off and other landscape damage.

He will return to Naples this week to lead Yom Kippur services at Adat Israel.

"What I really learned from the congregation was the sense of the resilience of humanity," Jeret said.

Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.