Houston floods inundate Jewish homes and two synagogues


Two synagogues and the homes of countless Jewish residents were damaged in the floods that swept through Houston on Monday and into Tuesday, inundating homes and businesses, sweeping away cars and leaving at least five people dead.

Houston, America’s fourth-largest city and home to more than 40,000 Jews, was paralyzed when many of the canals that run through the city (known locally as bayous) crested after torrential rains soaked the city. Some 8-12 inches of water fell in a matter of hours on ground already saturated by heavy rainfall during the last few weeks.

One of Houston’s major bayous runs alongside North and South Braeswood Boulevard, where two major synagogues are located and many of Houston’s Jews live. Numerous residents had to be evacuated by watercraft, including a rabbi emeritus from United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, one of the two synagogues that suffered damage. The other damaged synagogue was the Reform temple Congregation Beth Israel.

Houston’s JCC also said two of its properties were flooded, including the Merfish Teen Center, which will require new flooring, and racquetball courts and a preschool gym at the JCC’s Levit campus.

No fatalities or major injuries were reported among the city’s Jews.

“There’s water in every area of the shul – the main sanctuary, the social hall, the school wing, administrative offices. Luckily our Torahs were higher so they were not affected,” United Orthodox’s current rabbi, Barry Gelman, told JTA by phone. Gelman had to flee his home during the rains as floodwaters rose.

“Almost every house in this neighborhood sustained serious flood damages — from 6-8 inches to 3-4 feet of water in every house,” he said. “This will keep many people out of their homes for months.”

The outpouring of help from the community has been remarkable, Gelman said. As soon as the rain stopped, crews of volunteers from his 350-family synagogue community went house to house with canoes and rafts to rescue elderly residents and others stranded by the waters. After the waters receded, half a dozen Jewish high school boys showed up at Gelman’s house to help clean up and document the losses. A Conservative synagogue nearby offered United Orthodox prayer space (though United Orthodox said it plans to use its own social hall until repairs are completed), and another Orthodox synagogue in town offered to do the laundry of affected community members, complete with pickup and drop-off service.

“Amid all of this destruction, which is devastating, there is an incredible sense of unity and hope,” Gelman said. “The most important thing is no one got hurt.”

The CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, Lee Wunsch, said the community was still assessing the damage but that the Jewish Family Service of Houston would be the point of contact for community members requiring short-term housing or support until their homeowners insurance kicks in.

“This is definitely the worst since Tropical Storm Allison 14 years ago, but the protocol for dealing with it is pretty standard,” Wunsch told JTA. “It would be nice if it would stop raining, though. That just adds to the aggravation.”

This week marked the first time that Congregation Beth Israel, which was built in the 1960s and has 1,600 members, ever flooded, according to Pat Pollicoff, the synagogue’s president. More than a foot of water poured into the sanctuary, and air-conditioning and electrical systems in the sub-basement were flooded. The water came in the back door, which faces the bayou, she said.

The synagogue was able to get remediation crews in overnight Tuesday into Wednesday to pump out water and dry the carpets, which should limit the damage. Pollicoff said the synagogue was still working out the logistics of how to handle several major events scheduled for the coming days, including a graduation ceremony at the synagogue’s Jewish day school, a wedding, Shabbat services and another large event scheduled for Thursday night.

“The whole area surrounding the temple was so badly hit,” Pollicoff said. “Many members lost homes and cars. It’s a terrible thing for the entire community.”

Wild weather slams Israel


Rain and high winds have caused damage and power outages throughout Israel.

Storms raged across the country and temperatures dropped to below normal on Monday. Flooding closed the Herzliya train station and the main Azrielli shopping mall in Modiin, while traffic lights went out in cities. The power outages have been caused mostly due to falling tree branches.

Hospitals are preparing to deal with hypothermia from the expected lower temperatures.

The wild weather is expected to continue throughout the week.

Snow falling on Mount Hermon caused the closure of its ski slopes and visitors center. More snow is expected for Jerusalem and possibly the West Bank beginning Wednesday.

The water level in the Sea of Galilee rose 2.5 inches from Sunday morning to Monday morning.

israel

The Mediterranean Sea on a stormy day at Nitzanim beach, Israel, on Jan. 7. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

From Sandy to Gaza rockets, students weather each other’s storms


Between Israeli youths going through Hurricane Sandy and American youths experiencing the onslaught of rockets from Gaza, participants of November’s America Israel Friendship League’s (AIFL) student exchange rode an emotional and historic rollercoaster on both sides of the Atlantic.

Twenty-eight American high school students—members of the AIFL-sponsored Youth Ambassadors Student Exchange (YASE)—returned from Israel Nov. 19 after having witnessed Operation Pillar of Defense, and the rocket fire that prompted it, firsthand.

“I saw a bomb shelter for the first time and heard the ‘boom’ of an Israeli missile as it intercepted a Palestinian attack while we were at the school Hakfar Hayarok just outside of Tel Aviv,” Katy Hall, an 18-year-old senior at Bethany High School in Yukon, Okla., told JNS.org during her group’s layover in New York’s John F. Kennedy airport on the way home to Oklahoma.

Earlier in the month, the Americans’ 22 Israeli counterparts in the U.S. just prior to the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy, spending their first week as guests of host families in Oklahoma, Virginia Beach, and New York. The New York-based group experienced the unprecedented events of one of history’s worst natural disasters. At the beginning of week two, the entire group met in Washington, D.C., for an intense four-day learning program, and then traveled together to New York City.

YASE, a 30-year-old student exchange program that focuses on bi-national cooperation, education, and cultural understanding. YASE is the only public high school exchange between Israel and the U.S., and works in partnership with the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the American Association of School Administrators and the Israel Youth Exchange Council.

Following their New York schedule, the entire YASE contingent of 50 (between the American and the Israelis) flew to Israel, arriving in Tel Aviv on Nov. 8, and was welcomed into the homes of their Israeli host families. The Israeli group from Rishon LeZion who had experienced “Sandy” directly took their New York peers home.

Then came Operation Pillar of Defense, the Israel Defense Forces action intended to stop the rockets being fired from Gaza. “The first priority was to assure the safety and security of every participant,” AIFL Chairman Kenneth Bialkin told JNS.org while the American students were still in Israel. “Everyone is safe, everyone, is eager to stay for the full program. These are exceptional young people, exhibiting the highest ideals of friendship.”

The American students included delegates from many ethnic and religious backgrounds—African American, Chinese, East Indian Pakistani, Albanian and others. They were Christians (including an Egyptian Coptic student), Muslims, Hindus, and Jews. Everyone was in contact with his or her parents. During the course of the intense program, the students formed strong bonds with their Israeli peers and developed a strong sense of belonging.

The annual YASE program follows a meticulously planned curriculum comprised of academic, cultural and community activities and experiences throughout both the American and Israeli segments. When the Israeli contingent to New York—students mostly from Rishon LeZion, chaperoned by Sigal Greenfeld Mittelman— arrived there York just days before Sandy, they had no idea what awaited them.

“Sandy created a really awful situation,” Mittelman told JNS.org. “I had to keep the kids calm and assure their safety—especially without electricity.” Their parents in Israel were worried, and because there was no phone service for days, could not contact their children. Email and Skype helped Mittelman keep parents 6,000 miles away as calm as possible.

The American students scheduled to be in Rishon LeZion weathered a different kind of storm. It was the same New York contingent that had hosted their peers from Rishon LeZion during Sandy. They had to be moved from Rishon LeZion to the Israeli Ministry of Education-run boarding school of Hakfar Hayarok.        

“All the American kids were in constant contact with their parents,” Cassia Anthony, program director of AIFL, told JNS.org.

AIFL

The Youth Ambassadors Student Exchange contingent from America pictured just after landing in Israel.

Every attempt was made to maintain the students’ original schedule, although the base was moved from Tel Aviv to Haifa.  The students were able to visit schools, the Baha’i Shrine and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. But due to the rockets, the American students returned to the U.S. Nov. 19, curtailing their program by two days.

Dr. Charlotte Frank, chairman of the executive committee of AIFL and the initiator of the YASE program, praised the forbearance of the student ambassadors.

“The way these kids have responded is a miracle,” she told JNS.org. “The students survived an unprecedented encounter with Hurricane Sandy in New York lived through another ‘storm’—this time, of rockets and Israeli resilience. Their amazing experiences on opposite sides of the world will give then an even greater depth of understanding.”

“These young men and woman learned to live together, to survive together and to grow with their experiences,” Frank added.

Michele Ayers, a teacher at Oklahoma’s Bethany High School and a chaperon for the nine students from that school who participated in YASE, told JNS.org from Kennedy Airport on Monday that the students “felt very safe in Israel.”

Ayers described the city of Yukon, where Bethany High is based, as “a very conservative Protestant community.” She called the YASE trip “such a growing opportunity for the kids.”

“To be immersed in the Jewish and Israeli culture and learn so much about the Jewish people was amazing… Being in Israel was a great learning experience—though perhaps not at the best time,” she said.

The students’ Israeli host families “knew exactly what to do,” and were “like having family from a half a world away,” Ayers said.

Though the students were not alarmed, Ayers said she understood why the students had to return from Israel, when rockets began to fall as far north as the suburbs of Tel Aviv.

Hall, the Bethany High senior, said the Israel experience widened her understanding of her own beliefs.

“God is so alive here,” she told JNS.org. “The Jewish people are His chosen people. Being in Israel is so surreal, so beautiful.”

“The news doesn’t tell the true story of Israel,” Hall added.

Ayers said the Bethany High delegation is “going to go back” to Israel, but even if they don’t return, the Jewish state clearly left an impression on them that won’t fade anytime soon.

“There’s a part of my heart that remains in Israel,” Ayers said. “I’ll never be the same.”

Sandy stories: Destruction, recovery and human kindness


A week after Sandy swept into the New York area with fierce winds, driving rain and a high tide for the history books, the nation’s largest Jewish community was still picking up the pieces. JTA gathered stories from around the storm zone about Sandy’s destruction, the recovery and the remarkable tales of human kindness.

Houses of prayer as places of refuge

Some synagogues in the stricken area have seen more congregants this week than during the High Holidays. Many came for prayer, but others flocked to shuls for their offers of shelter, hot food, heat, recharging of electronics, wireless Internet and children's programming.

Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, N.J., hosted a free pizza night, but the real draw for area residents was the offer to charge electronics. In White Plains, N.Y., in suburban Westchester County, Jewish community members used an email listserv to trade information about which gas stations were open and where the lines were shortest.

In Mahwah, N.J., near the New York State border, locals packed into the social hall at Beth Haverim Shir Shalom to use tables set up with power strips so they could go online.

“I’ve been using my synagogue social hall as an office,” Joe Berkofsky, managing director of communications for the Jewish Federations of North America, told JTA. “I’ve been powering things up and have been able to get some work done.”

Russian-American Jews unite

Steve Asnes, an activist in the Russian Jewish community, was helping neighbors in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn on the night of the storm when a sudden surge brought water careening through the streets and up to his neck, according to Mordechai Tokarsky, director of the Russian American Jewish Experience. Asnes managed to hang onto a piece of scaffolding until he could reach safety.

At the nearby RAJE center, Michael Britan watched the center’s first floor turn into a swimming pool. The full extent of destruction became apparent only the next day. Cars lay on top of each other. The RAJE center was under 12 feet of water, its beit midrash study hall wrecked, and classrooms, offices, a boiler room and the elevator shaft all waterlogged.

Community activists who came to help clean up ended up spending much of the time at a high-rise apartment building across the street assisting elderly residents trapped in their homes without power or hot water, Tokarsky said. With the help of Esther Lamm, a RAJE alumna who heads the young leadership Russian division of UJA-Federation in New York, the volunteers quickly organized a command-and-control center that played a key role in relief efforts throughout the neighborhood.

Tokarsy said it would require plenty of work and help from private funders to get RAJE back up and running.

UJA-Federation providing $10 million

The lights were still out and the gas lines still miles long in parts of New York City when the UJA-Federation of New York announced Monday that it was making $10 million available immediately to synagogues, Jewish day schools and federation agencies providing direct care and support in storm-hit communities. The money will go toward cash assistance, temporary housing, food and “whatever else is needed,” federation CEO John Ruskay told JTA. The unanimous decision was made in an emergency board meeting on Sunday night.

The money will come from the federation’s endowment and reserves, and will be offset by any storm-related donations. “The point of having reserves and an endowment is to enable our agencies, our synagogues and our community to respond to people at times like these,” Ruskay said. It's the largest-ever commitment of UJA-Federation funds for a natural disaster, according to Alisa Doctoroff, chairwoman of UJA-Federation of New York.

Schools destroyed

Several schools, notably in beach areas, took a big hit from Sandy. Two of the three campuses of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach on Long Island reportedly suffered major damage, including at the boys high school, which was flooded. Though the elementary school is situated on the boardwalk of the New York suburb, the building reportedly escaped structural damage but was left with a mess.

The 120-student Yeshiva of Belle Harbor in hard-hit Far Rockaway, Queens, was flooded beyond repair, The New York Jewish Week reported. Water flooded past the ceilings of the first-floor classrooms, and by last Friday the school had decided to merge with the Crown Heights Yeshiva in Brooklyn’s Mill Basin neighborhood, the paper reported. At the Mazel Academy in Brighton Beach, books, furniture, classrooms and Torah scrolls were destroyed in a building that was renovated just last year.

Away from the beach, at the SAR Academy in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, the school managed to reopen despite no electricity by relocating classes to neighborhood synagogues.

Help wanted

They came from Manhattan’s Upper West Side and went to buildings without power or heat on the Lower East Side. They baked challahs and distributed them throughout the city. They sent a bus to take residents of Far Rockaway to Kemp Mill, Md., for a “relief Shabbos.” They started a clothing drive in Berlin.

All over the world, volunteers mobilized to help with storm relief. Some offered spiritual succor: A rabbi in Berkeley, Calif., composed a Sandy-inspired prayer beginning “Elohei ha'ruchot,” “God of the winds.”

Chasidic singer loses recording studio

When the surge hit the community of Sea Gate in Brooklyn, four or five feet of water ran through the streets from the ocean to the bay, leaving behind houses now condemned, a dramatically altered shoreline and destruction everywhere. In a YouTube video, Chasidic singer Mordechai Ben David offers a tour of his deluged recording studio, where the water that submerged his equipment rose to the bottoms of pictures of rebbes hanging on his walls before stopping.

“Everyone that lives in Sea Gate got hit badly,” Ben David said. “But Baruch Hashem, we’re fine, we’re alive.”

Donations

To donate to storm relief, please visit http://blogs.jta.org/telegraph/article/2012/11/06/3111241/donate-to-storm-victims.

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.

As storm descended on Northeast, Jews took to Internet to share stories and appeal for help


Hurricane Sandy: How you can help

 

At 10 p.m. Oct. 29, as the full brunt of Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on the northeastern United States, filmmaker Sandi DuBowski posted an urgent online message.

DuBowski’s elderly parents had declined to leave their home in Manhattan Beach, a neighborhood in southern Brooklyn that sits on a small peninsula flanked by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Sheepshead Bay on the other. The neighborhood is in Zone A, low-lying areas of New York City that Mayor Michael Bloomberg had ordered evacuated on Sunday afternoon in advance of the looming storm.

“The water has made it up to the first floor of the house,” DuBowski wrote. “They have gone up to the 2nd floor. Is there anyone who can rescue them and their neighbors tomorrow morning before the next high tide? I am scared how much higher it will go. Their power and phone is out.”

A flurry of messages followed, including contact information for relief organizations and city officials and simple words of prayer and encouragement. Friends reposted the appeal to their Facebook walls to increase its circulation.

“I’m so moved,” DuBowski said Tuesday, his voice betraying the strain of the night before. “Hundreds of people were forwarding this and searching for any avenue to help. It was a harrowing night.”

Finally, early Tuesday, DuBowski got a piece of good news. A neighbor with a cell phone had reached his mother, who had barely enough time to tell him she was all right before the phone went dead. DuBowski duly posted the update on Facebook.

“I know they’re alive,” he said in an interview. “I hope they’re OK. I think they’re OK.”

For many trapped in New York and other northeastern areas besieged by this week’s storm, social-media outlets — principally Facebook and Twitter — instantly transformed into lifelines, enabling residents to commiserate, appeal for help (or offer some) and share information, including pictures and video from the storm.

As the skies darkened Monday, video was posted showing the facade of a building in Manhattan being sheared off by the wind and of an explosion at a substation that knocked out power to most of lower Manhattan. Users linked to press conferences of the governors of New York and New Jersey, traded ideas for passing the time marooned at home in the dark, and even exchanged amusing doctored photos to lighten the mood. One showed the Statue of Liberty taking cover behind her pedestal as Sandy approached.

In the wake of the storm, Facebook emerged as a vital source of information in assessing damage. A photo of a tree breaking through the roof of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut, posted Tuesday on Facebook, garnered a dozen comments in less than an hour, including a link to make a donation.

But the real energy occurred as the storm was unfolding late on Monday and continued even as the power losses began in earnest, with users switching to mobile phones to keep in touch. Often, their final messages were announcements that power had been cut and they were going mobile, enabling their friends to construct virtual maps of the cascading power outages.

“I could follow, ‘Oh, I know Ivan is on 34th and Ninth. OK, they’re down,’ ” said Alexis Frankel, who lives in an area of Queens that was relatively unscathed by the storm but spent hours posting dozens of storm updates. “You could follow the domino effect of how the storm was progressing, which I found particularly helpful.”

For some in less-affected areas, Facebook became a means to experience what less fortunate friends were living through. “Friends in Philly were closing laptops and asking, ‘Are we in the same place?’ said Ahava Zarembski, who lives in downtown Philadelphia and never lost electricity during the storm. “All of the excitement moved to the Web and what’s happening and totally not tapping into what’s happening outside.”

For a brief period, Facebook functioned in ways that critics claim it never does: bringing people together for actual in-person socializing. At Zarembski’s house, this resulted in a pre-hurricane lunch and dance party.

“That happened because I was posting online what I’m doing, which was basically cooking and baking and telling people to come over. And they did,” she said. “People were stuck and getting cooped up. There was this weird energy and excitement, where energy meets fear. People felt the need to be together.” 

Jewish institutions shutting down for massive storm


[UPDATE 5:15 p.m. PDT] Reuters 

Massive storm Sandy made landfall on Monday along the coast of southern New Jersey, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Sandy was located about 5 miles southwest of Atlantic City, N.J., and had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph. 

Reporting by Kevin Gray; editing Christopher Wilson


[9:00 a.m. PDT] JTA

Jewish institutions throughout the eastern United States were closing in preparation for the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy.

The hurricane was set to make landfall late Monday, but rain and high winds already have started to batter the East Coast. The storm is expected to cause massive flooding and major power outages.

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 Monday, and that information on Tuesday's events would be posted Monday night. The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan also announced that it would be closed Monday and remain so until it is safe to return.

Hurricane Sandy

This NOAA GOES-13 satellite image shows Hurricane Sandy as it is centered off of Maryland and Virginia taken at 6:40 EDT on Oct. 29. The storm is heading in a northwestern direction towards the Delaware and southern New Jersey coast. An estimated 60 million Americans were expected to be affected by rain, wind, snow, or ocean storm surges from the storm. Photo courtesy of NOAA/Reuters

Also in New York, public transportation shut down on Sunday night, and schools and offices in the city were scheduled to be closed on Monday. Areas of Brooklyn and the Rockaways were ordered evacuated. Wall Street also shut down Monday 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 have 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, though the JCC of Greater Washington was scheduled to remain open until mid-afternoon Monday. 

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia also announced that it would be closed Monday.

Wicked weather causing damage in Israel


Severe weather in Israel has caused damage and blackouts.

Heavy rain and high winds disrupted air traffic at Ben Gurion Airport. Some wind gusts reached 62 miles per hour, according to reports.

The severe weather is supposed to last at least until Saturday; Friday is expected to be the coldest day of the year throughout the country. Snowfall is possible in the center of the country, including Jerusalem.

Mount Hermon was closed to skiers and other visitors Thursday after 10 inches of snow accumulated over Wednesday night—the highest amount on the mountain in a decade. Many roads and schools in the Golan Heights were closed, The Jerusalem Post reported.

On Wednesday, the level of the Sea of Galilee in the country’s North rose by more than an inch and sandstorms hit the South, which now is expecting flooding.

In Tel Aviv, power lines were downed by uprooted trees, and a bench was ripped from the sidewalk and thrown into a main street, Haaretz reported. Street signs and traffic lights also were blown down.

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

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.