In a gesture of solidarity and assistance to shore towns hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, a regional association of cantors held its summer retreat in Toms River.
Members of the New Jersey and Delaware Valley Regions of the Cantors Assembly met Aug. 4 and 5 at Congregation B’nai Israel. In addition to taking part in business meetings and study sessions and presenting a concert at the synagogue, members volunteered at the People’s Pantry Relief Center operated by the Toms River Regional Schools.
“Seaside Heights and Toms River were very badly hit, and we made it a priority to search out a shul where we could give a concert and a site where we could meet within a close proximity of a volunteer project,” explained Art Katlin, the cantor at Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville and chair of the NJ region of the Cantors Assembly.
Katlin and his Delaware Valley counterpart, Arlyne Unger of Beth Tikvah B’nai Jeshurun in Erdenheim, Pa., agreed to hold the retreat “in a place that had a need we could address,” he said.
About half the 25 cantors at the retreat, serving Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative synagogues, pitched in at the food pantry. The food is supplied by corporations and made available without cost to members of the community who are still coping with the storm’s devastation 10 months later.
“We helped to stock shelves in the food pantry,” said Katlin. “We were very warmly welcomed and felt we were really appreciated. Our energy was much needed. The pantry is still their main source of food.”
“The scope of the center is quite amazing,” Unger added. “They have several storefronts with all sorts of groceries, diapers, rubber gloves, and other things people need to take care of repairs in their homes as well as things they need for their everyday lives. It is made up of all volunteers who have worked really hard to stock the shelves.”
What struck Katlin was the extent to which storm damage is still unrepaired nearly a year after the late-October “superstorm.”
“We drove through the area and saw places that had been rebuilt, but there were lots of places where there was nothing there or where things were in flux,” he told NJJN. “Some people were fortunate enough to get back into their homes. Others to this day are homeless because they did not have the proper insurance. It is horrific.”
Katlin met a young woman who was eight months’ pregnant when the storm struck and submerged her home in four feet of water. “She and her baby are fine, but they are still homeless,” he said.
Beyond material needs, storm victims are receiving counseling. “They have experienced terrible trauma because of this disaster.” Unger said. “They still don’t have their houses, or they have terrible black mold problems, and they are afraid their children might become ill. They can’t get their lives back, and they are starting to despair.”
The cantors donated part of the $3,000 proceeds they collected from their concert at Congregation B’nai Israel. The rest of the money will be allocated to a scholarship fund for cantorial students.
Catlin said his group’s relief efforts will continue into the fall. For his part, he said, storm victims will be invited to the interfaith Thanksgiving service he and fellow members of the clergy in Lawrenceville sponsor every year.
Back in Pennsylvania, Unger said, “I want my congregants to understand how lucky they are. I keep saying that to myself every day. We shouldn’t take our lives for granted because not everybody is blessed the way we are.
“Our slogan at the Cantors Assembly is ‘Singing is only the beginning.’ It is important that we communicate with the people in our congregations and the community at large that we are more than just voices in the synagogue. We have many roles to play, and one of them is to inspire our congregants as well as ourselves to give back to our communities,” she said.