Orthodox Sandy relief

When Hurricane Sandy made landfall in late October, it left much of New York City and its surrounding communities in shambles, sending shockwaves all the way to Los Angeles.

Touched by the stories of devastation, three local rabbis and their congregations pulled together to raise nearly $75,000 in one week to help residents in the Five Towns on Long Island and Far Rockaway, Queens, both areas with vibrant Jewish communities.

When Rav Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea in Pico-Robertson, Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City (YICC) and Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills received an e-mail from Rabbi Hershel Billet of Young Israel of Woodmere — located in a neighborhood in the Five Towns — describing the destruction the community suffered, they knew they had to help. 

“That’s in the Jewish DNA,” Muskin said. “Of course, you help out. That’s what one does.”

Billet said that his community had never needed to reach out for help — that was, until Sandy occurred. 

“We are, thank God, a pretty generous community, and we generally take care of ourselves. I declined everyone’s offer [to help] initially, until we realized the magnitude of what everyone went through in this community.”

The damage was enormous: Billet’s home was heavily damaged, as were hundreds of others in his and nearby neighborhoods. The synagogue flooded, and the structure and furniture were ravaged. When power was lost, services were held in the dark with flashlights; when power was restored, the shul became a center for Wi-Fi and cell phone charging, as well as a place for the hungry to eat. 

Billet estimates that the total amount of damage was in the tens of millions of dollars. To help offset that, the community has collected more than $2 million worth of donations so far. 

In his original e-mail, Billet wrote that his community hasn’t, in the past, reached out for aid. Instead, it was always the one helping out. 

“I never thought I would be in a position to ask for money,” he said. “We always gave, we never took. Now we need to take.”

Hurricane Sandy left no other choice.

“Rabbi Billet is suffering,” Muskin said. “[This money] is for people in the community who he knows have been hurt terribly and don’t have insurance that they need. He is the man on the ground they need the most.”

The Jewish obligation to give tzedakah wasn’t the only reason that the three Los Angeles synagogues decided to donate. Each rabbi has personal ties to Billet: Muskin is a friend and colleague of the New York rabbi; Kanefsky grew up in the Far Rockaway area, and his brother is a congregant of Young Israel of Woodmere; and Topp once worked as a rabbi at the shul with Billet.

“That community is very similar to our community here in Los Angeles in many ways,” Topp said. “I’ve been very gratified by the response of our community. It was very meaningful and nice for the three synagogues to come together.”

Although Kanefsky’s synagogue has donated to relief efforts for disasters before, he said that the response from his congregants in this case has been tremendous. 

“There is a broad sense that this is an event the likes of which we’ve never really seen before.  People are profoundly affected. They are talking a lot about it and shaken up by it.”

Although Billet is in disbelief at the extent of the damage, he is grateful for the support from B’nai David-Judea, Beth Jacob and YICC. 

“I’ve only seen [natural disasters] like Katrina on television, but I never saw anything like this or thought I would be affected by it,” he said. “I thank all the people who have expressed concern.”

To make donations to the cause, visit yiwoodmere.org/donatesandy.cfm

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.”

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.