When Hurricane Ian hit Florida, Rabbi Sholom Schmerling of Chabad of Venice and North Port sprung into action. As the storm damaged his synagogue’s roof, blew over the menorah and knocked down his trees, he answered frantic calls from members of his community.
“All night, one person was in their home,” Schmerling said. “Their windows were blown out. There was water coming into their kitchen. They put a life vest on.”
The rabbi worked to help this person, along with other people in his community who needed assistance at this time. The extent of the hurricane’s damage is still being tallied, but so far, according to Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno, the Florida death toll is feared to be “in the hundreds,” and strong winds and heavy flooding have caused massive damage to people’s homes and businesses in southwest Florida.
Schmerling is working fast to get people access to generators and basic supplies. He’s opened up the Chabad as a place where people can eat, sleep and charge their phones if they don’t have power. He’s also receiving calls from people all over the world who are unable to reach their family in his community and helping them get in touch.
“We have the oldest population in Florida, and one of the oldest in the U.S., so our seniors are our biggest concern,” he said.
An hour and a half south of Venice is Naples, which was in a mandatory evacuation zone. According to Chabad of Naples Rabbi Fishel Zaklos, there was major flooding in his area, and the roof and fence at his Chabad were damaged. However, he’s been working hard to organize a BBQ dinner for people who are out of power or low on supplies.
In her Facebook invite for the BBQ, the rabbi’s wife Ettie wrote, “We might not have electricity, but we have each other.”
“This is what it’s all about,” Rabbi Zaklos said. “We’re taking everything that we’ve learned serving the community and applying it now.”
“This is what it’s all about,” the rabbi said. “We’re taking everything that we’ve learned serving the community and applying it now.”
The morning of September 29, the rabbi said that with help from Hatzalah, they rescued an 86-year-old woman who was stuck in her home after her first floor was flooded. The rabbi has been walking around and assessing the damage, and came across a community member who was happy to see him.
The morning of September 29, the rabbi said that with help from Hatzalah, they rescued an 86-year-old woman who was stuck in her home after her first floor was flooded.
“I was recording a video for Facebook, and a man turned to me and said that when he sees me, he knows God is present,” he said. “It wasn’t about me, it was about the two of us connecting. We are all made in the image of God, and we need to be here for the broader community. People are devastated. This has been a very difficult last two days.”
Hatzalah South Florida Emergency Medical Services, which serves Miami, Hollywood, Boca Raton and surrounding areas, sent volunteers to the southwest part of Florida to help as well. Joseph Dahan, co-executive director and co-founder of the organization, said that volunteers took medical equipment, water, clothing and food to the communities in need.
“We’re trying to track down people and provide medical services, and rescue people who have not be accounted for,” he said. “There haven’t been any fatalities or injuries at this time.”
“We’re trying to track down people and provide medical services, and rescue people who have not be accounted for.” – Joseph Dahan, Hatzalah
Sending volunteers when disaster strikes is what Hatzalah is all about.
“Hatzalah is always there,” Dahan said. “Nobody asks us to be there. We’ll figure out what the community needs and do what needs to be done. No one wants to leave their family a couple of days before yontif to do a search and rescue mission, but our volunteers know that’s what we need to do.”
Even though it looked like Orlando was going to be in the eye of the storm, during the worst part, community members there saw strong winds, and some are now without power. According to Kelila Siciliano, a former LA resident who now lives in Orlando, her power has been out for more than 14 hours.
“It’s windy and it’s raining, but it always rains here,” she said. “Every day in the summer we get some form of thunderstorms. But this time, there was no thunder – just wind. It was eerie.”
What concerned Siciliano the most was how she was going to make Shabbat without having any power. Thankfully, her friends nearby have power and are hosting her family for meals.
“The eruv is not up this weekend and there’s no way to check it,” she said. “But I heard from the rebbetzin of our synagogue that people are hosting for Shabbat and offering to bring meals to people as long as the roads are clear.”
Siciliano is just glad the worst of the storm is over.
“I am much more relaxed,” she said. “Yesterday, there was a nervous energy on WhatsApp from anyone who hadn’t been through a hurricane, but as it progressed, everyone’s energy was being released and we were sharing stories of past hurricanes. There doesn’t seem to be any real damage. It’s a relief to be on the other side of it. And I would take a hurricane over an earthquake any day.”
If you would like to donate to Chabad and Hatzalah at this time, here are links: