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November 2, 2012 By:
Deluged Day School, Ruined Torahs and Devastated Communities Left in Sandy’s Wake
The storm known as Sandy took dead aim on Monday at some of the most populous regions of the country, home to tens of millions of people as well as the nation’s largest Jewish communities. As the floodwaters rose from the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound, dozens of Jewish communities were besieged.
With electricity and phone service still spotty in affected areas as the week wore on, it was difficult to fully gauge the storm’s impact on local Jewish communities. Calls to Jewish agencies across the Northeast only occasionally went through — and even then, more often than not, were answered only by voicemail.
Jewish Federations of North America, which later this month is expected to host more than 3,000 people in Baltimore for its annual General Assembly, was shuttered, its headquarters in the flood zone in lower Manhattan. The umbrella group’s president, Jerry Silverman, was stuck overseas, unable to get a flight back to the New York area, and early in the week even emails to federation officials were coming back undeliverable.
Over in New Jersey, where the worst of the storm’s impact was felt, some local federations were silent, too.
“We haven’t been able to get through to a couple” of local federations, said Steven Woolf, who is helping coordinate the response for the Jewish Federations of North America. “Unfortunately, we don’t have real accurate reports because of the evacuations and because people have not gone back to do actual surveys of the damage.”
On Tuesday, many Jewish organizations began responding in earnest. Several of the largest — including Jewish Federations of North America, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and B’nai B’rith International — set up funds to help the victims. Others helped organize volunteers to aid in the relief effort.
But little could be done, at least in the short term, to alleviate the human loss and suffering caused by the storm.
“Lots and lots of seniors who didn’t evacuate are stuck in the dark, with no refrigeration, no elevators, and no stores open anywhere within walking distance,” Lenny Gusel, a Russian Jewish activist who had visited Brighton Beach, wrote in an email early Wednesday morning. Gusel urged his fellow Russian Jews to come help, noting that some elderly residents couldn’t easily leave their buildings without elevator service. (On Wednesday evening, Con Edison, the local power company, announced that it had restored power to the Brighton Beach area, though it noted that some buildings may still be without electricity due to flooding or storm damage.)
At Mazel Academy, Okonov tried to put on a brave face Wednesday, but the hurt was palpable. He helped start the academy 10 years ago with three students. Today, he has 140, drawn mostly from the ranks of secular Russian Jews that settled in Brighton Beach and surrounding areas. With the school growing rapidly, he had renovated the school’s ground floor just last year.
Now, everything they had built was ruined.
“Everything is brand new,” Okonov said, gesturing toward the recently laid floors and new furniture, all of it waterlogged and beyond repair. “Here we go again.”