The human response to the overabundance of water that has recently poured into our region, care of Superstorm Sandy, has been an overwhelming flood of kindness, care, and goodwill that has flowed through the devastated communities of New Jersey, New York, and Long Island. From the passionate concern shown by officials, beginning with Governors Christie and Cuomo all the way down to the county and city levels, our leadership as well as our neighbors have rekindled the sort of brotherly love that has always been a source of spiritual strength and emotional power in America during times of need.
This story, however, is not about the wonderful and dedicated response of President Obama, FEMA, the National Guard, the New York State troopers, and all of the wonderful volunteers and workers that have streamed into our region from all over the country to rebuild Long Island in general and Far Rockaway, the Five Towns, and Long Beach in particular. It is, rather, a focus on the efforts of a few kind and dedicated individuals who have strived and succeeded in making a huge difference in the island community of Long Beach, which was caught in the middle—literally—of an onslaught of hurricane-driven waves from the sea and an unprecedented storm surge coming from the bay, leaving homes, lives, and whole communities torn apart. (Keep in mind that Long Beach at its narrowest point has only two blocks separating the ocean from the usually tranquil bay.)
For the Jewish community of Long Beach, Ground Zero in the effort to rebuild is located on the corner of Penn Street and Long Beach Boulevard. This location houses the Young Israel of Long Beach, which is about as close to the ocean as you can get without actually getting wet. It also has a very nice basement, which is located solidly below sea level. Now there is no way that this basement, used on Shabbat for Kiddush and during the week for prayer services, could stay unmolested by the ravages of a seemingly unstoppable hurricane pounding on her very door.
Yet this basement remains the very nerve center of the Long Beach community. With Rabbi Wakslak acting as commander in chief of the relief operation and Rivka Bohan as acting general, chief cook, and bottle washer, this very basement is where relief efforts, supplies, meals, and prayer pour out on a daily basis. It was, is, and remains completely dry—like the building rising above it—untouched by the ravages of the superstorm.
So where else would the Long Beach community turn to? A daily minyan was quickly organized after the storm. When Shabbat approached, plans were made for a communitywide gathering of all of the Long Beach shuls. According to Rabbi Wakslak, “We received an amazing amount of food, which was sent by Brach’s, Michael Schick, Chabad of Albany, and food allocations from Achiezer.” Pomegranate of Brooklyn provided abundant food on a daily basis for meals held in the shul. Rivka Bohan allocated, combined, and served three unbelievable warm meals, while Yehudah Bohan, her husband, wired up the basement with light using his own portable generator. Scarce gas to power the generator was and continues to be provided by the City of Long Beach. Chaim Vinick, the gabbai, has kept the minyan running efficiently, both during the week as well as on Shabbat, making sure that the doors stay open to all in need. The list of those who helped goes on and on.
It was truly a communitywide effort, with resources provided by broad-based assistance from as close as the Five Towns (Brach’s, Gourmet Glatt, Carlos & Gabby’s), Brooklyn (Pomegranate), and Queens (G & I Bakery) to as far away as Albany (Chabad of Albany). Yet one problem remained. After all the amazing donation of good heimish food, there was just more than we could possibly eat—and no working refrigerator! What to do?
I decided to look for help. After venturing out into the cold and dark night in the unlit streets of Long Beach, I saw a light near the beach. As I followed the light, I saw and heard large earth-moving machines working nonstop near the bereft boardwalk. Finally, another light approached from the distance. It was a team of state troopers.
“How can we help you, Boss?” they asked. I explained that we had a huge problem—too much food. Could they help? While we normally think of troopers as guys that have all the resources and power of New York behind them, it turned out that these were two friendly state troopers from Albany who had not had a meal in quite a while—and they knew of several families in need of food. So as Rivka Bohan allocated the heavenly food, the unexpected Shabbos guests got the opportunity to meet and greet members of the Young Israel congregation.
Now, the success of our communitywide effort in no way indicates that the problems resulting from the storm have been solved. Indeed, they are only beginning to be addressed, as people return to situations that would be unimaginable only a few weeks ago. Yet one can never refrain from hope.
A car was parked in front of my house. It was not my car. So I was afforded the luxury of detachment as the seawater infiltrated the car’s engine. Much to my amazement, when the owner showed up the next day, the car actually started! Before she took off, I rushed to get her story. What did she experience the previous stormy night? She explained that she lived on the first floor of an apartment building located on Broadway. (In Long Beach, Broadway is right next to the beach.) As the waves entered her apartment, she had to force a window open to escape. And as she crawled through her apartment window, the salt water was conducting electricity. (We call this electrocution.)
Then she went upstairs to find uncertain refuge in a neighbor’s apartment. When she managed to do that, the apartment’s roof blew off. “So where are you going now?” I asked. She replied that she was going to stay with some friends. But that was only temporary. What she really wanted to do was to go to Israel. “Maybe I will find my bashert,” she said. “Amen!” I replied (and thinking to myself—not a bad idea!).
Included among the many volunteers I met who came to help the citizens of Long Beach were frum ambassadors who handed out everything from water to information to books. Rachel Ilan, for example, went door to door telling the residents of Long Beach (who had, and still have as of this writing) no electric service the latest information from the city, county, and state officials. Avraham Natick showed up from Crown Heights to help pump out the water from The Bach and to help out at the Young Israel, while Mark Gelberg traveled from Great Neck to donate much-needed food and clothing. (To learn how to donate aid for Long Beach through Rabbi Eli and Beila Goodman of the Bach shul, please visit fundrazr.com/campaigns/9NaY9.)
A friendly bachur was helping out some individuals with the Salvation Army. Without my even asking for help, he escorted me home, helping me carry a heavy load of drinking water. As we trekked home, I noticed another fellow with a pile of books in his hand. OK, I love books (especially free ones), so I gladly took a fresh copy of the Zohar (printed in Hebrew) off his hands to go with my fresh water. You never know . . . v
Update: As of Wednesday morning, power and heat had been restored to the Young Israel and points east of Edwards Boulevard, while parts of Long Beach remained without power.