By Rochelle Maruch Miller
Winds howled, heralding Hurricane Sandy as the storm surge arose from the ocean with ferocity. Engulfed in darkness, the sea unleashed its fury, overflowing from the beaches onto the Rockaway Peninsula and Nassau environs.
Imagine sitting in the comfort of your home and suddenly hearing eerie noises. Within seconds you see water seeping into your rooms from the shower, sink, and toilet. To your horror, you realize the water is backing up into your house and you are powerless to prevent it from coming in and wreaking havoc. From outside, the streets are being flooded by the ocean and bays are overflowing their normal boundaries.
As the water continues to rise inside your home, your furniture begins floating, leaving precious few moments for you to save your possessions. Everything else is either permanently damaged or destroyed: clothing, washer, dryer, furniture, appliances, sefarim, cherished photographs and mementos; a lifetime of memories lost forever.
The emotional, physical, and financial trauma is overwhelming. You and your family are left with little else but the clothing you are wearing and the memories of a beautiful life that was forever changed when Sandy struck. You are put to a test of your faith in Hashem as you must move forward.
Striving to meet the needs of our neighbors who have been struggling in the aftermath of Sandy, selfless members of our community joined together to assess, categorize, and prioritize the individual situation of each victim. This was the inception of Project Nivneh, a division of Achiezer, brought to fruition together with Partners in Sandy. Created with the purpose of pairing families who have been suffering since the storm devastated their lives with a partner who can serve as an advocate and social liaison for all their needs, Project Nivneh is a beacon of light amid a sea of despair; a veritable lifeline of support to those who have been paralyzed in the wake of the storm. To date, hundreds of families have been registered in the system, with 200 partners from our community, Queens, Lakewood, Toronto, and beyond, with many individuals waiting to be trained. In response to the need for additional caring and compassionate partners to render succor and support to Sandy’s refugees and advocate on their behalf, deeply committed individuals are added each day.
Project Nivneh has been the essence of chesed in its purest form, transforming a disaster into an incredible Kiddush Hashem. Pooling their talents, time, energy, and efforts for the greater good, the committee heads, partners, sponsors—each selfless individual involved in this monumental endeavor—helps afford the storm victims peace of mind, easing their transition back to home and normalcy with great sensitivity.
“Everyone is working on a purely volunteer basis,” says Sima Schwab who, together with Ettie Schoor, is a cofounder and director of Project Nivneh. “Many of our partners and committee heads are working mothers who are selflessly devoting their time and talents to this initiative.” Sima tells of the hopelessness that prevailed among those who had been hit in the darkest weeks following the storm. “There was an overwhelming feeling of paralysis, of not knowing what to do. Our partners have been working around the clock, advocating on their families’ behalf and facilitating the process of getting their lives back as they were. Project Nivneh has elicited an enthusiastic response from communities throughout the continent.” Great interest has been expressed in volunteering as partners; Sima stresses that prospective partners must be completely committed to taking on the responsibility entailed by partnering with a family. Capable, caring individuals with checkable references and e-mail access are required. Additionally, “You can buy any one of a variety of much needed items from $25 and up, or ‘Adopt a Family’ financially—there are so many ways to reach out and help and truly make a difference.”
Sensitivity is a key component in Project Nivneh’s Partners in Sandy Program. Many of the families who have been struggling since the storm were accustomed to being on the giving end and feel uncomfortable asking for any form of assistance. “The first thing we do is put our partnered families at ease and tell them that they are fulfilling the tafkid that Hashem intended for them,” said Tova Fuchs who, with her sister, Miriam Taub, has been involved with Project Nivneh since its inception. “One partner gently encouraged a young mother who was hesitant to accept assistance to do so to get back on her feet as quickly as possible and be able to help others.” For Tova, being part of a chesed project of Nivneh’s magnitude is “one of the most gratifying experiences.” Her interest was piqued when Ettie Schoor called with the idea that there were so many people who had not been hurt by the storm and suggested that they partner with people who were suffering greatly as a means of helping them. Tova has been at the forefront of Partners in Sandy ever since. “By partnering with a family, you are essentially adopting them—advocating for them and being their voice. We make sure every family is being taken care of; that their needs are addressed. It takes such a yoke off the family and helps restore stability into their lives. She adds, “We receive numerous thank you letters each week from partnered families. One of these beautiful, heartfelt letters thanked the partners for bringing the Chanukah light into their lives.”
“We’ve been partnering families who have been affected by the hurricane and are drowning; people who just left their moldy houses and were paralyzed, not knowing whom to turn to or what to do,” says Alisa Berger, one of the dynamic senior team leaders behind Partners in Sandy. Highly attuned to the needs of others, Alisa supervises 15 partners, having trained them to treat each individual with the utmost respect and dignity and to be sensitive to their needs, reassuring them that they are not alone. Many of these individuals are elderly, widowed, or single parents who don’t know how to deal with all of the red tape involved in applying for assistance as well as filling out a form or making a phone call. “We worked with a widow who was a storm victim and whose son had come in to help her from out-of-town; neither of them had any idea what to do. Boxes of items had to be moved; we had a wonderful group of boys from MAY who volunteered to help and moved the boxes. She was living on a fixed income and was in dire need of a refrigerator, intending to use her savings to purchase one. We were able to assess her situation and get the refrigerator for her without her having to dip into her limited assets.”
Alisa personifies what Project Nivneh and Partners in Sandy are all about; reaching out to friends and neighbors with kindness and warmth and providing them with the support, inner strength, fortitude, and resources to reclaim their lives before Hurricane Sandy took its toll. “We want them to know that they are not alone; we are here to help them through Partners in Sandy,” Alisa says. “When I hear people’s stories and do intakes and am able to tell them, ‘I can help you,’ it’s such a rewarding feeling to be able to help them, b’ezras Hashem.”
“Let me be your personal assistant,” is Shevy Jacobowitz’s heartfelt message to each of the 14 families she is partnered with. Originally from Toronto, Shevy describes the existing relationships between partners and the families they are paired with as “reciprocal” as she recalls how one of her families, who had lost so much during the storm, had expressed their gratitude to her. On a recent Friday afternoon, Shevy’s doorbell rang. At the door stood the young father of one of her partnered families, holding a beautiful candy platter to express his family’s appreciation. Shevy wanted to thank him for enabling her to do such meaningful chesed. Although Shevy and her family stayed with their relatives in Toronto during and after the storm, “we were suffering with our friends in the community.” Motti and Shaindy Seidenfeld, Shevy’s brother-in-law and sister, are Project Nivneh’s “Toronto connection,” having galvanized their own community to reach out to the storm victims and eliciting a tremendous response. “From that success, we are able to reach out to other communities who generously supplied truckloads of clothing, appliances, and other necessities. The secular world watches in amazement as they see how ‘Kol Yisrael areivim zeh l’zeh.’ People from all over have been amazing. They realize we are all affected; it could have happened to any of us.”
Rabbi Usher Jungreis, his eishes chayil wife, Yaffa, a team leader and partner in Partners in Sandy, his sister Slovie Wolf, as well as supporters of Hineni, have helped many partnered families with financial assistance, major appliances, computers, and they even rebuilt a washed-out playroom. Rabbi Jungreis summed it up, “Affected families are touched that people they never met in their lives gave of themselves with such generosity. That is the whole essence of Chanukah, that you light the candles that illuminate the darkness outside, in essence giving light to others.” Yaffa added, “When you become a partner you are not just their advocate. You become family.”
Bracha Schulhof’s passion to dedicate her efforts on behalf of storm relief was ignited by a phone call she received from a customer in Rockaway Beach in the aftermath of the storm. As their baby slept soundly in her crib on a lower level before the storm, the family went about their evening routine upstairs. Suddenly, the woman screamed in terror as a tsunami rushed toward their home. “Within minutes, the house was filled with eight feet of water as the woman yelled for her husband to grab the baby and bring her to safety,” Bracha recalls. Engulfed by the rising water, he navigated each step, fearful of being electrocuted. By the time he finally reached their baby, she was floating in the water. Baruch Hashem, the baby survived but has been hospitalized since the nightmare.
As the personable proprietor of Petite Pram, Bracha’s involvement in chesed knows no boundaries, a middah that is key to the fabric of her family. “After the storm, my mom called from Sh’or Yoshuv, telling me that there was a need for more strollers. At that point we realized this was much greater than what we could handle.” Using her business contacts, Bracha reached out to baby furniture vendors. “We’ve had a great response from manufacturers large and small. One crib manufacturer is giving me cribs at below wholesale price. I want to be able to supply a basic crib and stroller, to help as many people at the lowest possible price.” Bracha has been involved in Project Nivneh since its inception as the head of the baby furniture committee and helped create and monitors the targeted donation program on the Nivneh website with Naftoli Jacobs, the Nivneh website designer and programmer.
Over 30 committees are in operation, each comprised of dedicated and creative volunteers from our community who provide partners with the necessary resources for the families they are partnered with. A user-friendly website, Nivneh.org, has been created to facilitate the process of Hurricane Sandy victims registering online. Registered individuals are then contacted by a calling squad volunteer who will assess their needs and the type of assistance or partnership best suited to their needs. Individuals and families requiring recovery and social support as well as those in need of items or services are assigned to partners.
Among the newest committees is the home and housewares committee, headed by Chanie Goldberger. Chanie cites her mother-in-law, Beverly Goldberger, who owns Town Variety in Queens, as being an excellent resource in this division. Chanie told me that this committee has picked up within the last few weeks as the storm refugees prepare to return to their homes, and the public outpouring of support has been heartwarming.
“There is a woman from Monsey, Rochel Hurwitz, who attends three Tehillim groups each week and collects money for Sandy victims at each group. She will call me and ask, ‘Chanie, what do we need?’ and then go out and purchase all the items herself with the money she has raised. We have just received our second carload of home and houseware items from this incredible lady. We have just received another truckload of houseware items from Connecticut. The partners will send me an e-mail itemizing what their people need and they will meet me at the warehouse to pick up the item. You can’t imagine how happy they are to be able to do this. The expression on their faces says it all. These people are advocates for those whose lives have been devastated by the storm; this is a comprehensive way of addressing their needs. The partners are unbelievable; their commitment to the families is incredible.”
The construction committee, headed by Shmulie Schechter, Jack Rothenberg, and Asher Schoor, together with the help of Dovid Ganger, Chaya Gibber, and Miriam Vegh, started with a simple but challenging goal, “Get the people back into their homes.” This critical committee assists with demolition, boilers/hot water heater installation, electric panel replacement, and mold remediation. At first, despite the lack of a clear business plan and no bank account to fund this much-needed project, the Schron family provided seed money to get it off the ground.
“We started out by helping with the basic needs and suddenly found ourselves running a construction company,” Jack explained. “We first got together at a folding table in Sh’or Yoshuv helping people get rid of wet, moldy sheetrock and wet furniture, and within a few days progressed to a makeshift office and warehouse. With the help of the entire staff at the Cooling, Heating, and Beyond companies, we had an office with tables, computers, phones, and printers within 24 hours.
The most immediate need was to figure out how we would help 500+ devastated families from Belle Harbor, Bayswater, Far Rockaway, Five Towns, and Long Beach get back into their homes. “Obviously the overwhelming cost would be a key factor,” Shmulie says. “We kept the cost down as much as possible.” Many people were involved, working from early in the morning until well past midnight, from rolling up their sleeves at 2:00 a.m. physically moving boilers in and out of the makeshift warehouse to scheduling the teams to work around the clock. With funding from the Community Assistance Fund and the technical help of Motty Bistrisky, president of Chasdei Lev, together with Yoili at Worldwide Plumbing, Nivneh was able to overcome the shortage of boilers and obtain in excess of 100 boilers and hot water heaters. At the height of the project, phones were ringing off the hook with requests for help. To keep up with the soaring demand we contracted with 10 crews of plumbers and electricians. To date, although most families are in their homes, Shmulie says, they are still getting calls from people with no heat/electricity.
The next critical process is mold remediation. In order for people to close the walls and finish their home construction, the mold must be removed and the house completely dried. If mold is not removed properly, it can lead to significant future expenses. The Nivneh staff has spent much time researching mold remediation options and has arranged for two highly discounted options for the community. This program will continue remediating 30+ homes per week until all homes are completed. Project Nivneh is committed to getting people back into their homes safely and securely and will shortly be rolling out a construction assessment and validation tool to assist homeowners in contractor selection and related cost reduction. The construction office can be reached at 516-508-9999.
There is an urgent need to help our community members who are suffering as a result of the storm’s wrath. Featured on the website is a new section providing the opportunity to donate items that will be given directly to the hurricane victims. Created with the specific intent of promoting peace of mind and stability for families, this site aims to provide necessary items within the home, including furniture, appliances, linen, and clothing. B’ezras Hashem, our beautiful community continues to regain strength and heal through acts of kindness emanating from across the United States. From venues near and far, the truckloads arrive; from Los Angeles, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Lakewood, Monsey, and Brooklyn, in an overwhelming demonstration of empathy, support, and ahavas Yisrael.
This Chanukah, give the gift that will make a difference and brighten a person’s life. Whether it’s furniture, a microwave, or an IKEA gift card, your donation will light up the life of a family in need. For further information about being a Partner in Sandy or a partner head, to donate, or if you have sustained damage from Hurricane Sandy, visit Nivneh.org and register in the Nivneh system. Tizku L’mitzvos.