As the Jewish community rallies to help victims of what has now become the second-costliest natural disaster in U.S. history — behind only Hurricane Katrina — inspirational, heartbreaking, and even miraculous stories have emerged.
In the greater Middlesex County area, virtually every synagogue, Chabad, day school, and agency has pitched in to help the larger community, providing needed supplies, hot meals, and shelter from Superstorm Sandy.
Synagogues forced to either cancel Shabbat services or hold them by candlelight made the best of a bad situation.
After Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth regained power just three days after the storm — in a community where some were without electricity for up to two weeks — it began serving as a warming center for community members.
Rabbi Eliot Mahomet said about 100 people used the synagogue, which provided light refreshments and a place to charge electrical devices.
On Sunday, Nov. 4, he said, “we set up a television, and people came to watch the football game. We had people from the community, not just our members. I sensed a lot fatigue from people. We made the best of a lousy situation, and I think people appreciated it.”
In addition, the synagogue also matched people whose homes had power and were willing to welcome others in with those who were still in the dark.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County canceled its Super Sunday Community Action Day, scheduled for Nov. 18 (now rescheduled for Jan. 13) but threw its efforts into a Hurricane Response Day at its South River offices. In addition to serving as a collection center, the event was set to host representatives from local social service agencies to provide visitors with available resources.
In advance of the event, community members had been dropping off gift cards, new toys, and food during the preceding weeks and, said federation executive director Gerrie Bamira, “our neighbors in South River who had heard of our drive had been coming in to get much-needed supplies.”
The rest of the material collected on Nov. 18 was to be distributed to local relief agencies and food banks.
Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, which also regained power quickly, offered to let those without light and heat sleep in its ballroom overnight. Members stepped forward to offer sleeping bags and other essentials to their neighbors, said executive director Jane Sklon.
Synagogues often sent supplies elsewhere. Temple Emanu-El in Edison brought donated supplies to Temple Shalom in Aberdeen, which is helping those in the hard-hit shore area, said synagogue representative Dara Winston. Nonperishable food was collected for the Middlesex County Food Organization and Distribution Services, whose stores were severely depleted by the storm.
Because it was lucky enough to be on the same electric grid as New Brunswick’s two hospitals, Rutgers Chabad regained power after only 17 hours, said Rabbi Mendy Carlebach, while most of the campus remained without electricity.
“We opened our doors to everyone who needed a hot meal from the campus or community whether they were on our meal plan or not,” he said. “We didn’t ask, but I assume some were not Jewish. A lot of our vendors are from Brooklyn and places not so affected by the storm, so we were able to get deliveries.”
Additionally, students, rabbis, and staff volunteered to assemble sandwiches and hand-deliver them to area municipal shelters.
Carlebach said power strips were set up outside its doors allowing students to charge dead cell phones — so they could call anxious parents.
“At one point the line stretched all the way down College Avenue,” he said.
Bunny Rogers said her adult community of Clearbrook, unlike most others in Monroe, had a generator for its clubhouse. Residents there with gas grills cooked their thawing food and brought it to the clubhouse to share with their fellow community residents.
Fern Shegosky of Somerset, a member of Temple Beth El of Somerset, told NJJN she volunteered to help people — some of them residents of Sayreville and South River left homeless by Sandy — being sheltered at Livingston College in Piscataway.
She became tearful as she described a homeless single mother of three and a diabetic woman who was unable to sleep on the cot provided because of her disease.
Shegosky packed up clothing and other items, including “a coat I love,” she said, to bring to the people being sheltered. “I am just heartbroken by their stories.”
Sara Levine, executive director of Jewish Family & Vocational Service of Middlesex County, told a similarly heart-wrenching tale. A desperate woman called on Friday, Nov. 2, as the office in Milltown was about to close for Shabbat. The woman, who was not Jewish, explained she was the sole guardian of her three young grandchildren and was about to run out of food.
“Her son had been killed in action in Iraq,” said Levine. “Her daughter-in-law had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was in a group home out of state. She was their only family and had nothing to feed them over the weekend. We packed up some food and had a staff member drive it over to her.”
Levine also warned the damage from the storm is more than physical.
“People think the worst will be all over in a month, but if you’re one of the families affected, if you lost your home, your valuables, your job or a loved one,” problems and issues will persist for a long time, she said.
“Right now people are looking to deal with the damage, but two months from now the anxiety and depression will begin to set in.” JFVS, said Levine, is in it for the “long-term” and will continue to offer counseling and other services to Sandy’s victims.