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Shelters from the storm
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Shelters from the storm

Area synagogues tap ‘spiritual electricity’ in wake of Sandy

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Part of White Meadow Temple's roof was blown off. Rain soaked the sanctuary pews, including many books. The power is out and several trees are down on the property.

And yet, Rabbi Benjamin Adler told his Facebook friends, the Torah scrolls are okay and no one is hurt, thank God.

The Rockaway Township synagogue was among the hardest hit of all the congregations in the community in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which wreaked havoc across the region this week. Many lost power; most suffered no damage or very little, and some synagogues persevered, despite their lack of power.

Nearly all were relieved that one of the most destructive storms in recent memory largely spared lives in the Essex, Morris, and Union County suburbs. 

For those luckier than White Meadow Temple, life cycle events were most affected, with weddings and funerals postponed.

Synagogues with power opened their doors to the community, and hosted congregations without power for Shabbat, bnai mitzvah, and daily minyans. Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston offered to host a bar mitzvah party Saturday night that was scheduled for another synagogue without power.

At Congregation Bnai Israel in Millburn, Rabbi Steven Bayar texted on Thursday morning, “No power, holding all minyans, bat mitzvah this Shabbat w[ith]out power — will be held even if mashiach comes.”

Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield suffered some minor building damage, and a tree fell on the utility line in the parking lot, killing power and forcing to building to remain closed. A wedding scheduled for Saturday evening was postponed, and a funeral that was supposed to have been held during the storm was moved to Sunday.

By Thursday morning, Rabbi Mark Mallach was scrambling to make arrangements to reopen the building in the morning for daily minyanim, with a plan to cordon off unsafe parking area. Anyone coming to the building, however, was warned that it would be “BYOF”: bring your own flashlight. The congregation will worship at the Summit JCC, which has power, on Shabbat.

“I've been checking up on our seniors either by phone, some still have older land lines or in person, including some homemade hot soup deliveries,” wrote Mallach.

Outreach to seniors

Outreach to seniors was a common theme. Rabbi Francine Roston of Congregation Beth El in South Orange sent out a Facebook posting on Thursday saying, “God bless [synagogue nurse] Karen Kosarin Frank who visited the homebound elderly yesterday, took their cell phones home to charge them, and is returning them today so they can stay in touch.”

Some rabbis saw opportunity, or at least a chance to offer a positive outlook, in the face of the storm’s aftermath. Rabbi Steven Kushner of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield wrote on Thursday morning, “We are still without power at Ner Tamid. We have very little way of getting hold of our membership (other than through Facebook and our website). Chances are we will not hold a service on Friday night (we will encourage people to go to Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove on Friday night), but our chapel has lots of natural light so we'll have Shabbat morning worship (which includes a bat mitzvah) using the sacred light of Creation. Should be fun. Just like in the old days.”

Many synagogues that found themselves with power became community hubs. Rabbi Douglas Sagal at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield wrote, “We have been open since Tuesday for warmth, coffee, arts and crafts, play area, and movies for kids. We have been packed all week.” He added that the congregation would have regular worship services on Shabbat, and had even offered its space to a nearby church with which it has enjoyed a close relationship for worship services on Sunday.

Although Cranford was hit hard by the storm, Temple Beth El-Mekor Chayim’s building was unaffected. It opened its doors to the entire Jewish community, through an email from Stanley Stone of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and the JCC of Central NJ, to come and charge cell phones and laptops, and to bring their children to play in classrooms and youth lounge. They are hosting neighboring Temple Beth O’r Beth Torah for services on Shabbat. A Red Cross blood drive scheduled for the Sunday following the storm wasn’t cancelled.

Among those offering warmth and power to those without were Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange and Temple Bnai Abraham in Livingston, which offered hot pizza to those who came during the day. Oheb Shalom Congregation of South Orange reported that a steady stream of neighbors came in to enjoy the warmth and the power strips.

Oheb Shalom will host nearby Congregation Beth El, which lost power, for Shabbat services. Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb wrote that because Beth El has a bat mitzvah scheduled, his congregants would worship in the chapel and offer the main sanctuary to Beth El. (Beth El was among those who offered davening in the dark for morning minyan on Thursday and Friday, with a BYOF option and advice to “dress warmly”.)

Morristown Jewish Center-Beit Yisrael opened for members to come and charge phones and computers and just hang out from Wednesday through Friday. They planned to continue this on Sunday during regular religious school hours.

Hot Shabbat’

Rabbi David Nesson went a few steps further, matching families without power with those who have power. MJCBY also planned to hold a “hot Shabbat” dinner for all families without power, underwritten by the synagogue and its members. The synagogue was making arrangements for nearby Mount Freedom Jewish Center to hold its Shabbat services there, and even made space for a family to sit shiva in the synagogue building and hold services there. “We are proud to be a second home for so many in our community,” wrote Nesson. 

The “Hot Shabbat” option was also offered by a variety of area synagogues with power, including Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair and Bnai Abraham.

 Many synagogues without power cancelled religious school for the weekend.

Elizabeth was among the luckiest communities – all power at all synagogues was restored by Thursday morning, according to community leader Rabbi Elazar M. Teitz.

But even before the power was restored, the daily routine went largely unchanged, according to Rabbi Jonathan Schwartz of Adath Israel.

“Power outages may have stopped the electricity from getting to the building but spiritual electricity continued to ignite our congregants during the storm and its aftermath.” Daily services continued uninterrupted. Torah study sessions and classes continued in flashlight and candlelight, and the three Daf Yomi classes of the synagogue combined and continued, as did the synagogue’s daily mishna class. 

Perhaps Rabbi Jonathan Schwartz summed up the community’s attitude best in his comment, “Sandy may have tried to rain out our spirits with her vigor but we were invigorated by one another instead.”

How is your community coping with the storm's aftermath? Write jginsberg@njjewishnews.com.

 

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