By Larry Gordon
What an ordeal. And that’s not because we are spoiled (as many of us have been). It is for many reasons that this can only be described as an ordeal. I know that many of you are still living elsewhere and enduring extreme inconvenience and difficulty. Many have lost everything and will have to deal with crawling back to life the way it once was. But rest assured you will get there. We will get there.
I have to say this—through the darkness, a bright light was shining on the Five Towns and Far Rockaway communities. It shone from a multiplicity of directions, continues to shine, and will shine for a long time to come.
I was in Brach’s on Sunday morning collecting foodstuffs to be delivered to the Chabad House in Cedarhurst. A man walked over to me with tears in his eyes, saying that he was from Long Beach, that his house and all its contents were lost, and that he was taken in for Shabbos by people in Cedarhurst whom he does not know. In fact, he said, there were five families taken in to this one house.
On Sunday, I was at the temporary headquarters of the Achiezer organization that has been spearheading much of the outreach, assistance, and restoration activity for the Five Towns and Far Rockaway communities. Boruch Ber Bender, who founded the organization just a few years ago, was flying around the room literally jumping from meeting to meeting, answering questions that ran the gamut posed by people from Seagirt Avenue to Silver Spring, Maryland.
In the senior-citizen housing complexes on Seagirt Avenue, there was a crisis that needed to be dealt with. Elderly people were living alone, their phone service was out with the electricity, many had no cell phones, and there was no water. An effort had to be coordinated to go door to door in the building helping people out.
I overheard a volunteer call out to Rabbi Bender telling him that there was a man on the phone from Silver Spring. They had chartered a bus and were ready to leave for New York and they wanted to know where the manpower they represented could be best used. Wait a second, I thought; a group of people are on a bus from Maryland to New York, yet they have no idea where they would be needed or what it is they could do. All they knew was that people needed help and they were on their way to offer assistance.
On Monday I received a call from a young lady in Chicago. She said that the community had hired a trucker to transport things they were collecting from the local Jewish community for people in need. She said they had collected or purchased baby formula, diapers, new clothing, and household items. She wanted to know what I thought was needed, but I really did not know. I directed her to Rabbi Wakslak at the Young Israel of Long Beach, who is coordinating much of the efforts over there.
In Cincinnati, Ohio, after last Shabbos a group of people got together to raise money for the rescue and recovery effort here. The e‑mail I received said that over a few minutes $14,000 was raised and was being sent to Achiezer to assist.
Perhaps the most agonizing challenge for victims of the storm was the overt immediate need. Money for food and perhaps other expenses and the like would be available from FEMA, but first the submission of painstaking paperwork would be required. To address that issue, Congregation Heichel Dovid in Lawrence quickly put together a fund that would allow immediate assistance for those qualified and in need.
Politically, our elected officials are desperately trying to get a handle on an awful and uncontrollable situation. The fact is that in New York, 40,000 people are unable to live in their homes. Some are in shelters, others by relatives or friends, still others are living in their broken-down houses because they have no place else to go.
On Shabbos, New York State Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder received permission from his rabbis to be driven around by a non-Jew in order to attend meetings and do the work required to channel assistance into his suffering community in Far Rockaway and Bayswater. Perhaps this is one situation that demonstrates the extreme seriousness of what is going on here. The rabbis would have had to determine that lives were in danger in order to authorize him to do that—and they apparently were.
In Lawrence, except for those with generators, there was minimal electric service until this past Monday morning. Swatches of blocks got their power back that day. Still others in the otherwise quaint and internationally known village continue to sit in the dark. At a communitywide meeting on Sunday, Mayor Martin Oliner raged against the double-talking and deceptiveness of Long Island Power Authority officials that he was dealing with directly.
“All they offered was lies and more lies,” said Oliner at the meeting. He said that from his perspective as mayor of the village, he could not effectively communicate to LIPA that Lawrence and the attached community of Far Rockaway were not the same area. No one was trying to ostracize or throw Far Rockaway under the bus. But at a news conference the day before, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg said in response to a question about Nassau County power, “My job is to get power connected to New York City and the boroughs; you’ll have to ask the governor about Nassau.”
It may not have been the best time to compartmentalize, but that was what Bloomberg was doing. It demonstrated an aloofness and insensitivity that frankly was kind of shocking to me as I stared at my computer screen in my office on Sunday (where we had power since Thursday). So Oliner wanted to do his utmost to get Lawrence online, and that was going to be his initial focus.
In the meantime, on Monday night, the Village of Cedarhurst declared a state of emergency. That means a 7 p.m. curfew for non-residents. There have been extensive problems with criminals exploiting the power outage, including looting and break-ins at businesses and homes. A state of emergency allows, amongst other things, police to stop anyone and ask them to produce identification or in some other manner establish the reason for being in the village. People have not left their cold and dark homes in many instances specifically because they are fearful of people breaking into their homes and stealing their valuables.
Another issue that is becoming problematic is laundry. With power out, people are unable to wash their clothing. To address that issue, drop-offs for laundry are taking place between noon and 3 p.m. at the Young Israel of Bayswater and at Yeshiva Sh’or Yoshuv in Lawrence.
Assemblyman Goldfeder and his staff have been working around the clock trying to get matters on the right track. Earlier this week, he brought Senator Chuck Schumer to the neighborhood, and the other day Congressman Greg Meeks and Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy visited Achiezer headquarters in Far Rockaway. These may seem on the surface like photo opportunities or publicity stunts, but those are not valid criticisms. One cannot underestimate the need to get the powers-that-be to pay attention to our plight here in Far Rockaway and the Five Towns.
And what can be said about Hatzalah that has not already been said? The volunteers were in the forefront of numerous rescue operations as the storm first hit and people were left in homes, desperate, with no electricity and in many instances increasingly rising water levels. The courage displayed and the determination to save and comfort others is unparalleled.
On Sunday, I called Yanky Brach to ask if I could be of any assistance. He immediately asked me to take my car and go to the store, where they loaded us up with bagels, tuna, bricks of cheese, and cartons of milk and orange juice. I drove them over to the Chabad Center, where Yanky was ready to direct me to back into the driveway so that we could unload the foodstuffs.
We walked inside and Reb Zalman and Rebbetzin Chanie Wolowik were there hosting scores of people who were using the center’s power to charge their phones and computers. Food that we had brought over and other food establishments had brought over earlier were displayed for everyone to partake of.
Also, along with Brach’s Supermarket in Lawrence, Gourmet Glatt has been working tirelessly and unceasingly to supply food and countless other materials to people in need.
On Tuesday, I reached Yoeli Steinberg of Gourmet Glatt. He could not talk too long, he said, because he was out making deliveries of breakfasts and lunches to families that had no heat and no power. He said he was focusing on the hardest-hit areas, that is along Seagirt Boulevard, homes and apartments near the water.
Steinberg related that in the aftermath of Sandy, the store had lost power and was closed for a few days until a generator was procured to get Gourmet Glatt operating again. “We threw out over $1 million worth of food inventory and replenished our stock completely,” Steinberg said.
Yeshiva Zichron Aryeh, under the direction of Rabbi Shaya Cohen, sustained extensive damages in its Bayswater buildings. For now, the high school and kollel is scattered around the city, with some of the young families having been flooded out of their homes and seeking temporary housing. Other yeshivas, like HALB and Yeshiva Darchei Torah, were temporarily relocated over the last week.
With all this detailed above, this narrative only covers a fraction of the assistance that has been forthcoming from those who are able to help and directed at those requiring assistance. Recovery here will be a long-term project. Homes and schools have to be rebuilt; contents of homes have to be replaced. For now, aside from the physical damage wrought, it is difficult or perhaps impossible to grasp the extent of the trauma suffered by so many.
We will nevertheless persevere and continue to move forward with the help of G‑d Al‑mighty, and with the outstretched hands of our relatives, friends, and neighbors. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.