By Larry Gordon
That was a long time ago. It is too far back to even remember what really happened back in late October and early November 2012. A cross between Tropical Storm and Hurricane Sandy caused unprecedented damage and devastation to people’s homes and other property with major personal and economic disruptions to their lives.
Most have come through the ordeal that at minimum left homes and businesses without power for two or more weeks and many other homes damaged to unlivable extents. This ordeal did a lot to change people’s lives. While most of the experiences were about the individuals’ or families’ indomitable spirit, others in a quiet and unsung way were about the costly but heroic actions of a few who refused or were unable to look the other way as people struggled and suffered.
Back in 2008 at the peak of the economic downturn here in the U.S., members of the Five Towns community formed what became known as the Community Assistance Fund (CAF), that was created to essentially prop families up and keep them functioning when jobs were suddenly lost and incomes disappeared sometimes literally overnight. At the time, the fund, administered by Rabbi Dovid Greenblatt and attorney Elisha Brecher along with the input of a small board of advisers and directors, put the money together that effectively kept families afloat until the new reality in many lives was addressed.
“A few days after Sandy, basically sitting in the dark, I began to hear nightmare stories about how people’s lives were pulled apart by the ravages of the storm,” says Mr. Brecher. He says that he reached out to his neighbors and friends who were active in the 2008 effort like Rabbi Greenblatt, Melly Lifschitz, Sonny Ganger, Yossi Ostreicher, and Lloyd Keilson—all who reside in Lawrence—and several community rabbis, and they arrived at a quick consensus that the CAF needed to be reactivated and something had to be done to help those in immediate need.
“The first thought was that there may be some kind of economic paralysis and that people would need a quick infusion of cash just to keep themselves and their families going,” Brecher says. To that end a quick system was established with the help of Rabbi Boruch Bender and Achiezer to work through shul representatives that would field the requests of those who needed the cash infusion to get through the next few days and weeks.
Let’s jump eight months ahead to this week and report that while the activities of the fund are thankfully winding down, they are still some distance from coming to a complete halt. To date, according to both Brecher and Greenblatt, over 1,000 families have received some level of assistance. In total, over $13 million was distributed without government or foundation funding—all, they add, from private individuals. A good part of the money was raised in the Five Towns and surrounding communities, under the board direction of Sonny Ganger and Melly Lifschitz, for the first three phases of the lifesaving project.
It was quickly discovered, however, that much more needed to be done and that is when angels or donors who prefer anonymity came forward and singlehandedly amongst themselves and a few friends and colleagues produced the last $4 million that not only restored people’s homes but their dignity as well. That $4 million was specifically directed at the Five Towns, Far Rockaway, Bayswater, Oceanside, and so on. Several million more dollars was raised to assist others in Sea Gate and other hard hit locales in the New York area.
The project by and large went fairly smoothly once it hit its stride a few short weeks after Sandy. Brecher says what stands out from the experience for him was despite the overt and in some cases extreme need, so many people either refused or were very reluctant to take money from a fund that they specifically do not call a tzedakah fund for that very reason.
The person actually paying contracting bills and writing checks was Rabbi Greenblatt. It started with the small pocket money and then morphed into an allocation to replace ruined boilers and water heaters at about $10,000 per family and that evolved into the next stage of construction allocations of about $15,000. It was only discovered after these three phases that though many families had already received close to $30,000, in all too many cases this was not going to be anywhere near enough for many.
Both Brecher and Greenblatt concur that there were several allocations for specific construction projects that exceeded $100,000 per family. Those were the hardest hit victims of the storm with severe damages to their entire homes including in some instances where foundations had to be completely redone.
We all know people who moved in with family, friends, and sometimes neighbors. As the weeks dragged into months and neither FEMA nor insurance companies were coming up with the funds needed in order to rebuild, people began moving back into partially reconstructed or even dilapidated and damaged homes in order not to be imposing on family and friends any longer.
A resident of Woodmere related to me this week that he and his family lived through the winter in their homes without windows as their insurance company refused to pay their claim. “We had the windows boarded up for months and as long as we were indoors we could not see daylight or sunlight,” he said. The windows are now finally in but eight months later construction is still ongoing. “We are living in a small part of the house in two small rooms with a makeshift kitchen,” he says of himself, his wife, and five children.
Elisha Brecher is still marveling at how smoothly things ran over all these months. There is, he says, a tacit understanding that if a particular homeowner finally gets reimbursement from an insurance company, an attempt should be made to return some of the money that will be used to help others at some point.
Additionally fascinating is that today—eight months after the fact—there are still people calling to make an application for the first time. “There are individuals who thought or were at least hoping that they could make it happen on their own,” Brecher says. “But,” he adds, “the people coming forward today are giving in or giving up and realizing that they just cannot do it on their own.”
Lloyd Keilson, a member of the CAF board and the Chairman of the Village of Lawrence Zoning Board, says that as we approach the eighth anniversary of the Gush Katif forced withdrawal, there is a parallel that can be drawn between what happened in Israel in 2005 and here in New York in 2012. “The fact is that it is July, 2013 and an inordinate number of people are still not in their homes and their lives are unsettled,” he says. “People’s construction projects are in limbo, often stuck in place due to insurance companies failing to act,” he adds.
Here, though, as in Israel, generous and caring people stepped forward to help people they never met and do not know. We reached out to one of the people responsible for putting together $4 million for construction in the area and asked if he would like to go on the record to discuss the experience. He responded that he would prefer not to because he did not want to make any of the recipients of his and his associates’ largesse uncomfortable. Mi k’amcha Yisrael. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.