Tuesday, Apr 23, 2024

The Story of Sandy And How Klal Yisroel Copes

FAR ROCKAWAY Beach Ninth Street is a pretty, tree lined block in Far Rockaway where Dr. Nachman Schorr and his family have lived for twenty five years. Yes it's near the ocean, and there were warnings that a very nasty storm was coming to the area. But when Hurricane Irene hit this neighborhood a year ago it survived totally intact. Why would this time be any different? So when Dr. Schorr heard the water trickling into his basement at about six o'clock on Monday afternoon, he was concerned but not yet alarmed. He went downstairs to see what was happening only to discover that the trickle had developed into a deluge and that water was rushing into his basement “like Niagara Falls.” Panicked, he ran upstairs and yelled to his family - “Everybody out! Two cars! Now!” It was about then that he heard a big boom that shook him to the very core. Their sturdy steel garage door had totally caved in. Such was the incredible power of the rising water.

Dr. Schorr and his family jumped into the cars and raced a few blocks over to the home of his in-laws, the Mayers. As they drove, they checked the rear view mirror, and saw that “the ocean was chasing us! It was coming up Beach Ninth Street, a solid wall of water.” B’chasdei Hashem, the Schorrs made it with seconds to spare.


The driver of the car behind them wasn’t as lucky. He climbed to the top of his car and had to be rescued by the fire department. “I feel very grateful,” says Dr. Schorr, “to be sitting here today with my family, Boruch Hashem. My house is livable although my basement and my office are completely destroyed. At least I could joke about it now.”


When the Schorrs returned to their home the next day they found fish laying on the floor of their garage. Their lower level lays in ruins. Barbara Mayer, Dr. Schorr’s mother-in-law, sees it this way: “You put things in perspective,” she says. “You don’t cry over money. Everybody is safe, nobody is hurt, and we have to be thankful for that.”




“Physically,” says Rabbi Menachem Feifer of Bayswater, “we are Boruch Hashem okay. But there are people here, especially kollel yungaleit, who were wiped out.” Most of the residents of Bayswater evacuated before the storm, he explains, but when they came back to survey the damage they realized how much they had lost.


The Young Israel of Bayswater survived intact and has turned into the Command Center for the area. Patrols are being coordinated there and families are coming on a regular basis, grateful for the warmth and for the wonderful nourishing meals donated by Brach’s supermarket and many others.


The Agudah of Bayswater, however, sustained tremendous damage and the community is heartbroken. The shul is located slightly below street level and the water rose seven feet high in the building. “You can actually see the water line on the wall,” says Rabbi Feifer. Boruch Hashem, the sifrei Torah were removed before the storm, and the building itself is still standing. (Unfortunately, another shtiebel in the area lost two sifrei Torah.) But everything inside has been destroyed.


This is particularly disappointing because the Agudah had just finished renovating after last year‘s storm. While rebuilding, they used waterproof sheetrock and insulation. “We took steps to minimize the damage,” says Rabbi Feifer. “We emptied out the bottom shelves of the bookcases, the bimah, and the amud. But nobody expected this kind of damage.”


“It was unbelievable,” he says. “The water burst open the door. The aron kodesh was torn out of the wall, and the bimah was thrown across the room.” Thousands of seforim are also totally ruined. Says one resident, “There is just nothing that can be salvaged.”




Yeshiva Zichron Shraga, under the leadership of Rav Aaron Rapps, was located in the basement of Congregation Shaarei Torah, otherwise known as the shtieble. The storm wiped out the dorm as well as a beis medrash. The yeshiva temporarily relocated to the Bostoner shul on Avenue J in Flatbush. Rabbi Rapps describes the scene as looking like a war zone, saying that “the water from the ocean and the water from the bay met. It’s mind boggling to see what happened.”


Torah learning continues, in spite of everything. But in their spare time the bochurim are coming back to their community to help with the cleanup effort.


“The boys are terrific,” says Rabbi Plutchok, rov of the shul. “They are cleaning out the basements, pumping six feet of water out of many homes here, probably millions of gallons. The community as a whole is very uplifted by this.”


Rabbi Plutchok is on his way to deliver a space heater to one of the elderly residents of the community. “Older people,” he says, “have a harder time relocating and establishing themselves. It’s a chesed to work with their needs.” He says many of the younger members of the community are reaching out to their elderly neighbors at this trying time. “It’s bringing people together,” he says.


Rabbi Plutchok himself had a library of 4,000 seforim in his basement which is totally ruined. Nevertheless, he tells his kehilla, “This is not a punishment. This is a test.” He is confident that klal yisroel, who are big baalei chesed, will rise to the occasion. “We are physically devastated,” says Rabbi Plutchok, “but morally uplifted.”




According to Mayer Gold, who lives in Far Rockaway and works at Seasons supermarket, “You can laugh and you can cry.” He has seen devastation, he says, but he has also seen miracles in front of his very eyes. “Our supermarket uses boxes for delivery,” he says, “which we store in a warehouse in New Jersey.” Mayer traveled there on Tuesday, the day after the storm, and found that the entire warehouse was flooded and all its contents ruined. Except, he says, for Seasons’ boxes.


“The workers here couldn’t understand why our boxes weren’t touched,” says Mayer. But he knew better. “I’m not such a big tzaddik,” he explains, “but our store uses these boxes to supply Tomchei Shabbos of the Five Towns every week. It was in their zechus that this happened.”




Rabbi Wakslak of the Young Israel of Long Beach maintained communication with his kehilla as the clocked ticked slowly and the days dragged on. On Monday, a full week after the storm, he writes: “Things continue in a rather constant fashion,” he writes. “The weather is getting colder and more uncomfortable.” (Ed Note — The shul’s power finally turned in on Tuesday morning.)


But the response from klal yisroel was overwhelming. “People are calling non-stop asking what we need and how can they help. On Sunday we had the benefit of a bus load of volunteers from Chabad of Tribeca, Queens, and the West Side. They went to different homes to help with the cleanup.


“And last night, an amazing thing happened. During the day I was in contact with Rabbi Ben Skydell of the Orach Chaim community on the Upper East Side. They asked what they could do and we provided them with a list of needs ranging from clothing to toiletries, paper goods, diapers, and many other items. Late in the evening they told me they were prepared to come and drop off the items. They drove in with a caravan of four loaded SUV’s and vans and four or five young men unloaded approximately 150 boxes and bags and a list was placed on each box and bag listing its content. This was done in total darkness with the benefit of several candles.


“After the job was completed one of the gentlemen asked that we recite some tehillim which we did. We reassured each other that we would celebrate at a seudas hoda’ah in the future.


“Rabbi Skydell then showed me messages from the children of the congregation who had written cards. They were so moving, indicating concern and happiness that they can help the people living ‘in the shelter.’


“This morning I was overwhelmed and brought to tears when I received a call from the President of the Orach Chaim Congregation. He asked if Orach Chaim could adopt the YILB congregation and develop ways to be of further assistance to the entire Long Beach community during this calamity.”




Rabbi Heshy Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere tries to uplift the spirits of his kehilla. In a message to his congregation on Tuesday he writes, “We, like many of you, have been flooded, have lost both our cars, our power, many of our basement valuables like our books, photo albums, and computer, and things on our entrance floor.”


Nevertheless, he writes, “That said, we are in very good spirits. We are fine. We had a minyan on our block this morning, we have food and water, and we have life, and B”H, we are healthy.”


“In our family,” he continues, “we have a slogan about material losses. ‘It is only money.’ We learned the hard and painful way that there are things far more precious than possessions. Material items are a transient gift of the Ribono Shel Olam. We cherish our family, our community, our friends and the privilege to be part of Am Yisroel. So keep a positive spirit. This too shall pass.”




The vignettes of those who maintain perspective keep pouring in. Mr. and Mrs. G who live in Oceanside discovered that their house and all their belongings were destroyed by the storm. Instead of dwelling on the loss of her personal possessions, Mrs. G had one concern in her mind. “What happened to my chasunah kesuvah?”


They asked a shailoh and were told to purchase a new kesubah in a seforim store and have it filled out by a rov. Thus did they come to the home of Rabbi and Rebetzin Lieff in Flatbush with their new kesubah and two eidim. In honor of the occasion, chasunah music was played. “There was singing and dancing and we had a l’chaim,” Rebetzin Lieff relates. “It was like a mini chasunah.”




When challenges present themselves on such a large scale, klal yisroel rises to the challenge. The outpouring of chesed from individuals, businesses, and organizations continues unabated. There is no end to the stories of selflessness. A Brooklyn rov drives through the streets of Far Rockaway randomly offering coffee and danishes to everyone he sees. Bochurim learning in a Brooklyn yeshiva that is located near a Hess gas station bring coffee to weary drivers who are waiting on line for hours. An individual brings his sons in from Monsey and calls the Seagate Command Center every single day asking how they can help. Countless families host friends and strangers who are homeless for Shabbos. Shuls and homes across the area open their doors to temporarily house yeshivos. People who never did this type of thing before are putting on work boots and help rip out the moldy carpeting from someone else’s basement. Everybody is sharing their food, batteries, blankets, resources, and – most of all – goodwill.


Instead of a sense of desolation and despair, there’s a sense of resolve and determination. “There’s a tremendous spirit,” says Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetsky of Yeshiva of South Shore, “of coming together. A feeling of achdus. We had a Motzoei Shabbos learning program this weekend and it was very well attended.”




Lessons to be learned? Ain Od Milvado, Yad Hashem “We have so much to be thankful for!” are just some of the deeper messages that people conveyed when trying to sort through the mess. As time goes on, every individual, guided by their own rov, will take away their own personal message.


Rabbi Charlie Harrary of Aish HaTorah offers a perspective that can resonate with everyone. “Be happy with normal,” he writes. “It’s amazing how, when our lives are functioning normally, we focus on what we are missing. Then something threatens our normal. We stop worrying about what’s next. We just want it to go back to normal.”


“We lost power. It was dark, real dark. No cellphones, heat, hot water, refrigeration. I couldn’t help but think, pray, and silently beg for power. Power? Who appreciates power? But at that moment, that’s all I wanted.” Thus does he offer the following ‘resolution’. “Every day, notice one thing in my normal life, and be grateful for it.”



The Mesivta of Long Beach, under the leadership of its rosh yeshiva, Rav Yitzchok Feigelstock, experienced its own little miracle. The rosh yeshiva, Rav Chaim Yehoshua Hoberman, describes the scene in Long Beach during the storm. 


“The streets were flooded under three or four feet of water,” he told the Yated. “The ocean just seemed to move itself several blocks inland. The streets were flowing like rivers, cars were being pushed all around, and the benches from the boardwalk were floating in the water.” 


Nevertheless, the yeshiva building itself remained intact. Even the ground level was untouched by the flooding. This is truly amazing, considering the force of the water that was flowing relentlessly right past its front door and on down the street.


All of the talmidim of the yeshiva were evacuated well before the storm began, as per the mandatory evacuation orders. Rav Feigelstock was also safely evacuated and is currently in Lakewood.


On Sunday, the yeshiva received special permission to allow busses to enter the area in order to move out all the bochurim. The 240 talmidim, including the out-of-towners, were dispersed across the New York area in private homes. Rav Hoberman thanks the many parents who graciously hosted their sons’ friends, and the boys themselves who made sure that every single one of their chaveirim was cared for.


While the bais medrash building itself was miraculously undamaged, the four dormitory buildings and eleven homes of staff and rabbeim are completely flooded, especially their lower levels.


“All the rabbeim,” says Rav Hoberman, “are essentially homeless right now.” 


Torah learning continued in informal settings in Lakewood, Brooklyn and Passaic, and groups of bochurim were hosted in various homes or buildings in those areas. Many individuals have come forward to offer a long-term solution for some of the classes, but the hanhallah of the yeshiva prefers to transfer the yeshiva in its entirety to one centralized location. The hanhallah is currently in the process of examining a site that is spacious enough to satisfactorily meet its needs. 


It’s not an easy task, considering that there is no functioning office right now, but the roshei yeshiva, as well as the hanhallah, are working tirelessly to achieve their goal. 


“We’d like to thank all those who have reached out to us,” says Rav Hoberman. “There was a tremendous outpouring of goodwill from friends, supporters and alumni who want to help.”


As of now, weather forecasters are predicting yet another storm to hit the area during the upcoming week, so all relocating efforts will have to wait until after it passes. 


Meanwhile, Rav Hoberman describes the scene in Long Beach today, as mountains of debris and sand litter the streets. “They don’t call it Sandy for nothing,” he humorously observes.



It’s Monday afternoon, a full week after the name Sandy had become a household word for all of us. We are having lunch at Mendelsohn’s Pizza store, and it’s as busy as usual. Only this time, many of the customers are Sandy refugees, uprooted from their homes and temporarily relocating here in Boro Park.


The Gross family from Long Island is sitting at the table behind us. They are celebrating the fact that their power was just turned on and they can finally move back home. The joy is tinged with a little bit of fear. “I’m scared,” says Mrs. Gross who hasn’t been home since this whole crisis started, “to see what I’m going to find there.”


Two tables over, sit a group of men who live in Seagate and have moved in with assorted family members in Boro Park. They are grateful to be treated lavishly by their hosts but, like everyone else, they just want to go home.


That doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon. Seagate is being described as a “war zone” by those who have seen it. I speak to Shmilu Follman, who is coordinating the Shomrim Command Center effort, and he explains it to me this way: “Think of Iraq,” he says. “Do you know what Iraq looked like right after it was bombed? That’s what Seagate looks like today.”


You can see a thousand pictures of the damage and the devastation but nothing compares to seeing it in person. So we purchase a couple of pizza pies for the heroic volunteers who are manning the Command post, and we are on our way to witness the scene firsthand.


We drive down Ocean Parkway and turn right towards Coney Island, and are already greeted by a surreal scene. Mountains of sand are piled up on the streets, and are being carted away in truckloads by sanitation workers. For a moment it looks like snow has accumulated after a snowstorm, but then you remember that it hasn’t snowed yet this season, and that you are looking at the sand that used to be the beach but has now been blown a full city block inland by the power of the storm surge.


It’s a chilly afternoon in Coney Island but there are plenty of people out and about, presumably because they have no place else to go. There’s a makeshift disaster assistance center a few blocks away where people rummage through cases of clothing, as well as a tent set up by FEMA where people can register their claims. Long lines of people are waiting in the cold for their chance to speak to a FEMA representative.


We reach the Seagate community and we tell the guard that we are here to visit Mr. Follman. He nods and allows us to enter. There are a few rickety folding tables set up near the front gate with food and provisions, and a young woman hands us a leaflet explaining to us both in English and in Chinese how to apply for disaster assistance.


Welcome to the new reality in Seagate. How does one describe what it looks like? The streets are covered with sand, and there are deep puddles of mud and water where some residents are still pumping out their basements a full week after the fact. Cars are parked haphazardly, with their doors, trunks and hoods left wide open in an apparent attempt to let them air out somewhat. People are walking about aimlessly, including one elderly woman who is shouting to no one in particular, “Does anyone have a working cellphone? I need to call the ASPCA. I think my dog is dying.”


But the most heartbreaking scenes of all are the huge piles of debris that sit in front of virtually every house in the area. Here are the soggy, moldy, and rotting remnants of people’s lives. Endless piles of sheetrock, furniture, mattresses, tables and chairs, books, bicycles, electrical appliances, clothing, toys, dishes, and more sit on the sidewalks, the bits and pieces of everyday life, waiting to be carted away by overworked sanitation workers.


Overhead, army helicopters circle the area surveying the scene. Here on the ground, police vehicles patrol the area. It’s easy to find the Shomrim Command Center, because it is the only hub of activity in the entire community. About a dozen residents of Seagate are milling about outside the truck, taking advantage of the cellphone charging area and the hot coffee and bagels and – of all things – Pomegranate tomato dip that is being offered. By and large, these residents are not Jewish, but they are cheerfully welcomed by the Shomrim volunteers. They cluster together in groups to share their stories, and several are sitting on milk crates as they sip their coffees and wait patiently for their phones to charge.


We deliver our pizzas, which are greatly appreciated but probably unnecessary. The heimishe food industry and chesed organizations have outdone themselves by donating a tremendous amount of provisions. Pomegranate sent cases of food, as have various bakeries and restaurants. A volunteer named Duvie is on his way to pick up a load of catered meals from Misaskim. Deliveries are being sent from the Masbia Soup Kitchen. Seagate may be qualified as a disaster area, but clearly anyone who is still here will be well fed.


Follman and his crew haven’t had a moment’s rest since this whole thing started. They are determined to maintain a semblance of order and sanity amid the chaos. As time marches on, the priorities are being sorted out. The first concern is the lack of power. According to Pinny Dembitzer who is also holding up the fort, that’s not as simple as it seems. Con Ed is working in the area, but it is a slow and meticulous process. “The electricity in Seagate runs on seven different grids,” he explains. “They need to go into every single house to change the meters and when they are done the homeowner needs to sign off.” He is hoping that at least two or three blocks in the center of Seagate will be reconnected in the next few days.


Then the rebuilding process will have to begin, but it’s not going to be easy. Follman crunches the numbers. There are 800 families living in Seagate, and about 250 of them are frum Yidden. Twenty five percent of the homes are fully destroyed. The other seventy five percent suffered extensive damage in their basements. He describes how Sandy wreaked havoc: “At about six thirty, the high tides broke the sea wall, and within five to ten minutes the ocean came through the area full force. Basements started flooding six to eight feet high, and there was simply no place to go.”


He tells harrowing tales of narrow escapes and families spending the night in unlikely places. And yet, says Follman, everyone is eternally grateful to the Ribono Shel Olam that there were no injuries or fatalities here. “Now,” he says, “we have to rebuild.”


Because the security situation after the storm was woefully inadequate, Boro Park Shomrim came to the rescue and established the Command Center that we see today. Security is a major concern at this time, and Shomrim volunteers are actively patrolling the area, especially after dark. Fifteen men courageously volunteered to spend Shabbos in Seagate so that the area would not be completely abandoned. “We danced and we sang and we davened as much as we could,” says Follman. They also took turns guarding the neighborhood.


Having the only working phone in the area, Shomrim established a hotline for community residents and quickly set about recruiting volunteers to help pump the water out of basements. “Every house will need a new boiler and hot water tank,” Follman predicts, “and probably a washer and dryer.” He estimates that it will cost every family a minimum of ten thousand dollars to rebuild and that’s just for the bare basics. He doubts that insurance will cover much, if anything, for most residents.


So the food and the volunteers are amazing and wonderful, but the next step in the process towards rebuilding is private donations. The community has set up a site (sgsandy.com) for this purpose, and Follman says that their dayanim will be in charge of distribution of funds.


Outside the Command Center we meet Avrumi, Yoel, and Yisroel who do not live in Seagate but are volunteering their time to help the community. Yoel, who lives in Williamsburg, says he learned in Seagate for several years and cannot believe the devastation he is seeing. “It used to be so beautiful here,” he says.


He is here to help with the cleanup effort and spent the day unclogging drains and pumping out basements. Yisroel, his neighbor, is trying to boost the cars of local people in an effort to see if any of them would start. Whenever a police car passes, they walk up to the window and offer the cops a hot cup of coffee and something to eat. These fellows are a walking Kiddush Hashem.


Mr. Spitzer, who lives in Seagate, shows me a picture on his cellphone of his neighbor who is benching goimel in front of a garbage truck. That seems to be a rather odd place to be benching goimel, but Spitzer explains the circumstances. “That garbage truck,” he says, “helped save his life.”


The neighbor, who had hoped to ride out the storm at home, made a desperate attempt to escape but was overcome by the rising waters. He ran towards a sanitation truck that was parked nearby and climbed onto its roof. He sat there for five hours, until he was rescued. Today, he is grateful to Hashem that he is alive.


Around the corner from the Command Center is the Satmar Yeshiva where Yoel learned. It’s a dramatic scene. There are tables set up outdoors with piles and piles of waterlogged seforim. Tables, benches, shtenders and chairs are lined up in the street, the contents of a recently vibrant mokom Torah uTefillah. Bochurim in bright yellow work boots are still bringing items outdoors while hired workers are still pumping out the water. It’s anyone’s guess how long it will take for things to come to order.


It’s late afternoon and mincha minyanim are being formed in the backyard of a Chabad shul. As the sun begins to set over Seagate, more volunteers are pulling up in their SUV’s despite the late hour and the blustery wind. It’s cold outside, yet the mood is distinctly warm and cheerful. For all the wreckage and havoc that we witnessed there’s also a tremendous sense of optimism. Nobody is foolish enough to imagine that things will change overnight. It will take many months, possibly years, for Seagate to become the vibrant flourishing community it was. But the people here are undeterred. “We are strong,” says Follman, “and we will rebuild.”




Achiezer was established in 2009 by local and Rabbinic leaders in the Five Towns area who saw a need for creating a master organization to deal with crisis management. Led by Rabbi Boruch Ber Bender, it would combine the community’s many resources and coordinate support for individuals and families in every aspect of assistance.


Little did they know then how they were destined to rise to a formidable challenge.


When Sandy struck the area and left devastation in its wake, many people lost not only their possessions but also their primary sources of communication. For them, as for so many others, Achiezer became the lifeline that they sorely needed. In a well-coordinated relief effort, they helped the community navigate its way through the crisis by providing support in every possible way.


As the crisis developed, the community’s immediate needs and concerns continued to change. The organization’s continuous public bulletins read like a diary of the storm. The first alerts from Achiezer began coming before the storm even started, advising the community about mandatory evacuation orders including information on transporting the elderly and handicapped. By Monday afternoon, on the day of the storm, residents were advised to stay put, as evacuation was already becoming dangerous. On Tuesday, morning, Achiezer offered phone service to those who desperately needed to communicate with family members and began advising the community on school closings, road conditions, and property safety “We are facing a prolonged period of time without heat, lights and communication,” they warned.


By Thursday, Achiezer was offering Shabbos accommodations for community members as well as food, clothing, transportation, and financial assistance. And even now, eight days past the storm, the daily updates keep coming. Only now they deal with long term issues such as basement pumping, voting locations, food coordination, laundry services, shaimos disposal and FEMA applications. Their hotline has fielded hundreds of calls from frightened, worried, anxious residents and also from concerned and dedicated volunteers. They continue to serve admirably as the central station in the battle to overcome the after-effects of Sandy.



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