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Sunday, July 13, 2014

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Lessons of community learned after Sandy

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Sitting in our New York apartment as hurricane Sandy pounded the city, the wind tossed the trees outside and our windows rattled. Inside, we continued on. My daughter was fast asleep, my wife studied for an upcoming exam, and I conducted a telephone interview with only the occasional crackle on the line.

We were fortunate. Our power never went out. Our water kept running. Our apartment didn’t flood. Meanwhile, millions of neighbours suffered.

For many, Sandy’s legacy will be one of isolation. With no power or phone lines, Internet or elevators, with bridges closed, the subway crippled and a gas shortage, hundreds of thousands were left alone.

For me, and I’m sure for others, Sandy highlighted the importance of community, and specifically the strength of our Jewish community. The mobilization of individuals and agencies to support those most in need has made me appreciate the blessing of community.

As Sandy approached, our rabbi organized a calling list of the community’s elderly. Before the storm we checked in with them to see if they had the supplies they needed, a safe place to wait out the storm and an emergency number to call. After the storm, we called to see if they had power, flooding or damage. While all those we called were relatively unscathed, their appreciation was palpable.

For days after the storm, messages were sent to Jewish email listserves and Facebook groups by relatives trying to locate their family. Without electricity to power elevators, working telephones or operating cell towers, thousands of elderly were stranded in their apartments, unable to contact relatives or seek help. As emails came in with names and addresses, volunteers travelled to effected areas such as the Lower East Side to check on those stranded.

Over Shabbat our neighbourhood was full with evacuees. Families opened their homes and the synagogue organized meals. UJA Federation of New York collected more than 800 challahs to distribute, giving both physical and spiritual sustenance.

Countless communal organizations served as bases for relief efforts. Jewish commuity centres opened their facilities to those who needed showers. Our synagogue offered outlets to recharge drained batteries, Internet access, and coffee to those without power. On the Sunday morning after the hurricane, the foyer was filled with donations from congregants and neighbours as we sorted the supplies and loaded cars delivering them to shelters.

The local Orthodox day school lost power. Synagogues – across denominations – set up makeshift classrooms, allowing students to continue their learning and parents to attend to more pressing issues of recovery.

The list of chesed, acts of kindness, that took place goes on and on. This is what communities do.

At times, it is easy to take our community for granted. We bicker among ourselves, argue over politics, Israel, religious practice, continuity, and colour schemes for the social hall. Seeing first-hand the response of our community to hurricane Sandy has, for me, reinforced the value of community to bring physical, emotional and spiritual support to those most in need.

That said, it shouldn’t take a hurricane to get us to help each other across denominational, socioeconomic and political lines.

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