By Stephen Steiner
In an entirely new OU approach to fundraising in the wake of a national disaster, contributions to the Orthodox Union’s Hurricane Relief Fund are being channeled directly to the rabbis’ discretionary fund in OU shuls in stricken areas so that needed assistance will be distributed on the ground at the point of impact by the rabbis who are dealing with the situation day by day.
“Who knows better than the rabbis the suffering in their own communities?” said Dr. Simcha Katz, OU president. “Likewise, they know the damage inflicted on local Jewish institutions, the synagogues, and yeshivot, including their own shul. That is why this unique means of delivering aid has been chosen by the OU for its fund.”
Dr. Katz noted that the OU has established a committee to allocate hurricane relief funds to the affected communities. “Some will be outright gifts and some will establish non-interest loan funds so that when people are reimbursed by their insurance company or by FEMA, those funds can be used by someone else in an effort that is certain to go on for years.”
Contributions may be made to the fund at www.ou.org. In addition, those with hurricane-related problems, community requests, or alerts can e-mail the Orthodox Union at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a condition resembling wartime, with people’s homes destroyed, lives disrupted, memories of a lifetime swept away, jobs unreachable, schools closed, infrastructure disabled, despair everywhere, and recovery a process that may take years, the OU went into action, as it so often has done when nature erupts. This fund follows the Hurricane Katrina relief effort and other emergency funds established by the OU in recent years to deal with natural disasters.
Communities most deeply affected include Long Beach; the Rockaway Peninsula of Queens, including Belle Harbor; the Five Towns, and Merrick, of Nassau County; Seagate in Brooklyn; and the coastal towns in New Jersey.
The OU leaders noted that they have reviewed reports of damage to Orthodox facilities, such as Congregation Ohab Zedek in Belle Harbor in the Rockaways, which had 12 feet of water, completely destroying the beit midrash. The Manhattan Beach Jewish Center in Brooklyn had its basement flooded. The Young Israel of Oceanside on Long Island had extensive flooding, ruining its lower level and all of its youth rooms, as well as damage to its sanctuary. At the same time, the iconic Bachurei Chemed Synagogue in Long Beach suffered significant water damage and the rabbi’s residence was destroyed. The Young Israel of Woodmere was flooded and damaged, and its rabbi’s house was severely damaged.
Rabbi Steven Weil, OU executive vice president; Dr. Katz; Stephen Savitsky, OU chairman of the board; Ronnie Lipstein, OU board member; and Rabbi Judah Isaacs, OU director of community engagement, visited the flooded community of Woodmere and then went to the nearby Rockaway Peninsula.
Rabbi Isaacs reported, “As you drive around the neighborhoods, house after house has the contents of the basement and first floor laid out on the street to be picked up by the sanitation department. There are literally no basements or first floors.” He quoted Rabbi Hershel Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere, who stated, “People are in a state of shock,” adding that even if they get back power, in some cases, their boilers have been washed away. At a shelter in Far Rockaway, a woman reduced Dr. Katz to tears when she told him, “I lost everything.”
Meanwhile, OU programs such as New York NCSY based in the Five Towns; the Seif Jewish Learning Institute on Campus program at Queens College; and New Jersey NCSY have begun their own disaster relief efforts.“
At Queens College, Rabbi Robby Charnoff, Torah educator of the JLIC program, wrote to students: “As we continue to hear about the fallout of this terrible blow to our greater community, we want to make sure that all of you know that the Queens College Jewish community, particularly through Queens College Hillel and the OU Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, along with all of your fellow students, are here to help in any way we can.
In another action, New Jersey NCSY, which has done clean-up efforts in New Orleans and around the country, did not have far to go Thursday—20 minutes to the town of Hoboken, flooded by the waters of New York Harbor and the Hudson River.
“The Orthodox Union will be working to help our communities recover and rebuild,” Dr. Katz and Mr. Glasser firmly declared. “We will not be deterred and we know that the response to our fund will be generous and heart-warming.”