As I write these words, we are still stranded on Killington Mountain, a well-known winter ski area in Central Vermont, totally cut off from the world. We are on an island, alone. All roads to civilization have been rendered impassable by the fury of Hurricane Irene.
What started out as a wonderful bein hazemanim family vacation has not, however, ended in a nightmare, as some may erroneously think. Although we would really like to be home, it has nevertheless been an eye-opening experience in discerning Hashemâ€™s Hashgochah and kindness and the chessed of His wonderful nation, Am Yisroel.
One of the most beautiful scenes happened in an exercise room, while surrounded by treadmills and exercise bikes. That room has become our makeshift shul since Sunday afternoon, when the ski lodge that had been our permanent shul was rendered dangerous and inaccessible after its parking lot was literally washed away by flood waters.
It was in that makeshift shul that we davened the Yom Kippur Koton tefillos for Erev Rosh Chodesh Elul. The atmosphere was one of true tefillah and dveikus in Hashem. It is not hard, when you are stranded, to feel Hashemâ€™s Presence and to tangibly understand that ein lonu al mi lehishaâ€™ein elah al Avinu shebashomayim. We are completely in Hashemâ€™s Hands.
As the entire tzibbur publically intoned the climactic words of the tefillah, â€œHashem Hu haâ€™Elokim,â€ we felt a true sense of closeness to Him. He had declared that we be stuck here and He, and only He, can get us out of here. Sometimes, the fury of nature can put one in touch with the benevolence of its Creator.
HOW IT ALL HAPPENED
Letâ€™s back-pedal a bit to last Thursday. With the expected arrival of Hurricane Irene, we, a diverse group of frum families of all types from Lakewood, Brooklyn, Monsey, Kiryas Yoel, Far Rockaway and Baltimore, vacationing together in Vermont, heard the numerous reports of the expected havoc to be wreaked upon New York and New Jersey. We contemplated returning home before Shabbos but were dissuaded. â€œWhy would you want to come back near the Jersey Shore where the Hurricane will strike with all of its fury?â€ we were told. â€œStay out there, inland in Central Vermont, and when the storm ends, you can come home.â€
That is exactly what we did. We spent a beautiful Shabbos here in Vermont. The weather was warm and balmy and was certainly not a harbinger of what we were to experience the next few days.
On Motzoei Shabbos, a misty rain began to fall. The rain slowly transformed into a torrential downpour. The extremely heavy rain continued into Sunday morning. Yes, it was raining hard, but so what? Or so we thought. We had every intention of embarking on the trip back to Lakewood. Following the news reports from the East Coast, it became clear that as soon as the roads in the New York area would be rendered safe for travel, we would be on our wayâ€¦
Our first inkling that things were not so simple came after Shacharis as we were leaving the shul located in one of the ski lodges. Upon exiting, we saw a gush of water – more like a waterfall or something resembling a raging rapid – coming down the mountain at terrific speed and gathering in the shulâ€™sparking lot. Within a couple of hours, that parking lot had turned into a deep lake.
Nevertheless, we heard the news reports that the storm was abating. We thought we would be able to leave.
ALONEâ€¦IN THE DARK
By early afternoon, the car was packed. We were thoroughly soaked but ready to leave. We started going down the access road that exits that mountain and were met by a number of fire trucks, lights blazing. The firemen informed us that it is dangerous to travel. â€œThe roads are unsteady and are already under water,â€ they told us.
Reluctantly, we turned back, thinking that perhaps we would simply wait until Monday morning to return home.
Boy, were we wrong.
As day turned into evening, the rain refused to let up, ultimately dumping inches upon inches of water on the area. The winds began to pick up, howling ferociously. We huddled in our rooms waiting for the all clear. Suddenly, the lights flickered once, then twice, and went out.
Power was down. One cannot comprehend the definition of the word choshech until one experiences a blackout atop a mountain in a rural setting. It was truly pitch black and impossible to see even one inch ahead. Furthermore, because the water is pumped from an electric powered pump, we lost running water as well. So there we were, in the dark, with several battery-operated flashlights and terrified children whimpering in the background, feeling all alone.
THE DAWN OF A NEW DAY
Chadoshim labekorim rabbah emunasecha. One really appreciates the onset of morning after spending a fitful night in a blackout.
As Monday dawned, we began to realize that we had been caught in what was perhaps the largest natural disaster ever to hit Vermont. Thousands of roads had been obliterated and tens of thousands of people were stranded.
Up on Killington Mountain, we were especially isolated, because there was literally no way out.
After Shacharis, it became clear that we would have to obtain staple foods as soon as possible. I also had very little gas in my gas tank and knew that, without electricity, it was critical that we have a full tank of gas in the car.
I went down the mountain road to a gas station located there and found a line of some 50 cars all waiting to get gas. The entire station was functioning on a generator and things were going very, very slow.
After about one and a half hours, we emerged from the station with a full tank.
The next hurdle was the local grocery located on the mountain. With little children who needed food, I felt I could take no chances. We stocked up on cereal, peanut butter, bottled water, fruits, vegetables and any other available staple. After waiting on line for an hour to pay, we returned to our family with the precious cargo.
THE PURE EMUNAH OF JEWISH MOTHERS
One of the most inspiring things to hear when exiting the car in the parking lot was mothers talking to their small children. The children were asking, â€œMommy, when are we going home? How long are we going to have to stay here?â€ The mothers responded as only erhliche Yiddishe mammas can: â€œI donâ€™t know, but whenever the Ribono Shel Olam wants, we will be able to leave. Now the Ribono Shel Olam apparently wants us to stay here.â€
Soon after returning from the grocery, I was told by some Satmar chassidim who were among our group of vacationers that they had been in contact with the Chessed Shel Emes organization, as well as Rabbi Isaac Lieder. They would be â€œhelicopteringâ€ food to us, I was told.
I must admit that I was initially a bit skeptical. How would they bring food to us on top of a mountain? How could they do it that quickly?
The special group of Satmar chassidim, tayereh Yidden, led by Reb Aharon Noach Klein and assisted by Reb Meir Jeremias, did not seem fazed. They told me that by Monday evening, we would have food – and plenty of it
â€œI want you guys from Lakewood to see what Satmar essen (food) means!â€ a third member of the group told me.
They took a count of how many people we were and even went around asking if anyone required medication to be flown in.
In the early afternoon, most of the frum people staying up here experienced the profound joy of â€œvayehi ohr,â€ as the power in most units came back on. We once again had light and water. Boruch Yotzer Hameoros!
Meanwhile, Monday turned into a beautiful sunny day. If not for the fact that we were all somewhat anxious about being so isolated, one would never have realized from the idyllic atmosphere that the entire Vermont was in a state of emergency.
THE HELICOPTER PLAN: SEEING IS BELIEVING
Monday afternoon, following a heartfelt Yom Kippur Koton Minchah in advance of Rosh Chodesh Elul, we went for a ride to survey the damage wrought by Irene.
It is difficult to describe the magnitude of the destruction for those who never saw it. US Rt. 4, one of Vermontâ€™s main arteries, sustained tremendous damage. As one came down the Killington Mountain access road and drove a short distance, one was met with catastrophic destruction. The road was not just flooded. It was uprooted by the sheer force of the raging waters surging down the mountains at record speed. There were chasms hundreds of feet long, where the road seemed to have just been uprooted.
As of this writing, the federal government is attempting to build a one-lane access to link Rt. 4 with the town of Rutland, a town about 15 miles from Killington. It may take daysâ€¦
After returning to our â€œhomeâ€ on the mountain, we were gleefully met by our Satmar friends, who told us that the planes were on their way and would arrive within the hour. Chessed Shel Emes headed by Rabbi Mendy Rosenberg had arranged everything.
COMING IN FOR A LANDING
The entire frum population – men, women and children – gathered at an empty parking lot near the hotel where the helicopters were expected to arrive. There was a wonderful atmosphere of camaraderie. Our early anxiety to leave had been replaced by a sense of resignation. It was clear that Hashem had decreed that we remain stranded here and we all felt a sense of kinship. We were achim letzarah.
Suddenly, we heard the faint sound of a propeller. The sound became increasingly louder and then we saw it – a small helicopter slowly circling the parking lot and landing just a few feet away from us. The first person to disembark was Rabbi Isaac Lieder, holding a box of Kornâ€™s bread and two bottles of medication for people who desperately needed it.
The smiles of gratitude on the faces of our group said it all. Boxes of food were quickly unloaded, offering everything that one could think of – milk products, meat, chicken, shelf-stable meals, and more. You name it and it was there.
The helicopter made four trips one after the other, each time bringing more food.
After one trip, the pilot who stepped out of the helicopter was Reb Yaakov Yosef Rosenberg, a son of Reb Mendy Rosenberg of Chessed Shel Emes. He was joined by Reb Shloime Goldenberg. Indeed, the work of the Chessed Shel Emes organization, with their devotion and attention to detail, from prescription medications to baby formula and everything in between, was breathtaking. They were assisted in this effort by Chaverim of Kiryas Yoel and Misaskim.
Perhaps the most heartwarming feeling was that there were special Jews who did not even know us personally but treated us as brothers.
We no longer felt so isolated.
We werenâ€™t alone.
From afar, they did what we thought was unthinkable and undoable. The non-Jews got help from FEMA, but we got even more help from Chessed Shel Emes and countless special Yidden who left no stone unturned to ensure that we would be able to weather the storm.
A TRUE KIDDUSH HASHEM – GETTING BOCHURIM BACK TO YESHIVA
Another fascinating postscript to the story is the special chashivus for Torah displayed by these special askonim. Rosh Chodesh Elul is upon us and yeshiva bochurim must return to yeshiva for the Elul zeman.
There were several bochurim here in Killington with their families. When the special baalei chessed brought us the food, they were asked if they could take yeshiva bochurim back with them in place of the food that had been emptied. They immediately agreed. After each flight, three yeshiva bochurim were transported in the helicopter and eventually flew back to Westchester on two chartered planes.
There was also one maggid shiur among us who, in his devotion to his talmidim, felt that he could not miss the first day of yeshiva. With the blessing and encouragement of his distinguished rebbetzin, he, too, went on the helicopter.
As the yeshiva bochurim took off and the helicopter carrying them disappeared over the mountain in the distance, I knew that they were experiencing the event of a lifetime, but that is not what I was thinking about.
I was thinking, â€œHashem Yisborach, look at Your wonderful Am Yisroel. No, we are not perfect, we do have deficiencies, but when it really matters, arenâ€™t we such loving brothers to one another? Arenâ€™t we such loving children to You? Is there anyone who loves You and Your Torah as much? Who would put young teens ahead of everyone else because they are engaged in something so important that it sustains the world – learning Your Torah? Your devoted baalei chessed do so much kindness, but they also never forget the paramount koach haTorah.â€
There are now reports, late Tuesday morning, that Misaskim is working around the clock to try to find a solution for us to be able to drive home sooner than later.
My dear readers, let me end off this report by saying that, yes, we are still stranded here. Yes, we are a little anxious. Yes, we have had enough vacationâ€¦too much vacation. Yes, we want to go home. We very badly want to go home.
At the same time, this experience, even as we are stuck on top of Mount Killington, has so filled us with a sense of joy, of good fortune, of gratitude to the Master of the world, of gratitude to our Father in Heaven for giving us the zechus to be part of Am Yisroel.
Gratitude to have the best brothers and sisters anyone can have.
Gratitude that we are all the children of one Father. Kulonu bnei Ish Echadâ€¦