‘It has taught us about our own fragility’
Sandy left many scars, but also a strong sense of communal bonding
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Among the billions of dollars of damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, which hit New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012, was the home Stacey Tart shared with her husband, Larry, and their two daughters, Hayley and Jane, in Livingston.
A 300-year-old tree in their yard fell through their roof and into the middle of their living room. Nearly a year later, Stacey Tart sat down at Dunkin Donuts in Livingston to describe the family’s experience.
“We were in the house, all ready for the storm,” Stacey recalled. “Suddenly, around 9:30 p.m., I heard a huge crash, and then I heard my husband screaming. I can still hear his scream ping pong in my head. It was a scary scream. Then I saw my kids on the front lawn crying. I ran to them, and my husband came stumbling out with blood pouring from his head. I think he was in shock. The girls, then 15 and 12, were freaking out.”
Larry was leaning to hand a container of sour cream to Jane when a large beam fell on his back. He was taken to the hospital by ambulance. He had broken his nose and all his ribs, and it took him three months to recuperate.
“If he hadn’t been handing Jane the sour cream, he would have taken it on his head,” Stacey said.
Eventually the Tarts rented a home in West Orange for the year. To make matters worse, while Lawrence recuperated, he lost his job. Stacey got laid off as well. Both had been in sales.
In the end, they both got new jobs, also in sales, but, as it turned out, in companies they have a passion for — she for a firm that sells organic soil; he for a police department organization known as Officer Phil that works on safety and anti-bullying campaigns.
“We’re both in a better place,” she said. Finally, last August, they were ready to move back home.
They cut down all the trees near the house, but left the stump from the tree that fell into their house. “At first we cried looking at it, thinking, ‘You didn’t beat us.’ But now, it reminds us how lucky we were. Really, this could have had a very different ending. It has taught us about our own fragility — how one minute you can be sitting watching Jeopardy! and the next minute a tree could fall on your head,” said Stacey.
‘A communal feeling’
Throughout the state, the violent storm catalyzed Jewish institutions, whose members comforted victims, helped restore basic needs, and repair what they could (see sidebar).
In August, Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan hosted 10 Israelis and 11 members of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, who helped rebuild a ruined Union Beach home. Local members of the Cantors Assembly interrupted their annual meeting to volunteer at the People’s Pantry Relief Center operated by the Toms River Regional Schools. The Jewish Federation of Monmouth County oversaw the distribution of more than $100,000 in storm relief while coordinating a host of activities though such agencies as Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Monmouth County, Hebrew Free Loan Society of NJ, Sephardic Bikur Holim, and local synagogues and Chabad houses.
One year after the violent storm surged up the Atlantic coast with devastating winds and even worse flooding, many who weren’t displaced say they discovered a renewed sense of community.
Alma Schneider of Montclair said she found herself “living out a kind of fantasy of living on a commune” in Sandy’s wake.
As soon as power came back on in her otherwise undamaged house, she invited people to stay with her — two families plus the child of a third family. “I loved the communal feeling,” said Schneider, a mother of four, a social worker, and a chef who writes the “Take Back the Kitchen” column in local Essex County papers. “People were forced to sit around and talk. It felt like Little House on the Prairie. I was so, well, nourished to be able to make them comfortable and give them warm beds and delicious food at a time of need. I was actually really upset when everyone’s power came back on!”
Her eldest child, Ilah Saltzman, celebrated becoming bat mitzva on Sept. 21 at Bnai Keshet in Montclair, and spent the better part of her talk that Shabbat discussing how the Schneider/Saltzman family welcomed strangers during Hurricane Sandy.
Now, the family is looking forward to a party marking the one-year anniversary. The host is throwing it to thank everyone who helped get her family through the storm.
The Tart Family, meanwhile, is trying to put Sandy behind them. But it has left some lasting scars. Stacey doesn’t sleep much at night, worrying about all the what-ifs. Jane constantly watches the weather and the wind. Larry doesn’t talk about it at all. Their little dog is on Xanax. Hayley is the only one who seems to have emerged unscathed, according to her mother.
They spend more time at their synagogue, Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston, than they used to — Stacey goes nearly every Friday night. The congregation’s religious leader, Rabbi Greg Litcofsky, was with them through the whole year, beginning the morning after the tree fell. “I just feel very safe and comforted there,” said Stacey. And when she announced that the family was moving back into their house, she said, the congregation “got up and started clapping.”
She believes the experience has made her a better person. “It put things in perspective in a lasting way. I’m glad for that. It’s made me more attentive, and calmer. And I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. That feels good.”
But she still has her moments. “I don’t think we’ll ever be done processing this. It’s just too big,” she said.