It started in the middle of the night between last motzaei Shabbos and Sunday morning with an e-mail from Azriel Ganz of Woodmere. There was a serious crisis evolving in the community, he wrote. Somewhere between 200 and
300 families or more—he wasn’t sure of the number yet—have been put out of their homes by Superstorm Sandy almost three weeks ago. “We have a list of 275 families and these are people who came to us,” Mr. Ganz said. “We really have no idea yet how many are out there that don’t know us or who are just reluctant and apprehensive about coming forward.” And this is why he contacted the Five Towns Jewish Times. They want to reach everyone with this housing problem.
Many were staying by friends or family. For most it was meant to be a stopgap solution, but the bureaucratic entanglements and delays these last few weeks have left people staying put where they are and perhaps overstaying their welcomes. Tension runs high, there is overcrowding and frustration. People do not know where to turn. Many feel uncomfortable and that they are overimposing. Some are moving back to dark, cold, and still water-filled homes. Insurance companies are backed up with long waiting lists. Children are getting sick and people are at their wits’ end.
Someone has got to do something. And that’s where Azriel Ganz and Inna Kopel of Studio Inna in Woodmere come into the picture. So far over the last week they have not just identified 15 vacant homes in Woodmere and Hewlett, they have had volunteer groups clean out the homes, paint them and furnish them, as well as stock the refrigerator and kitchen cabinets with food and so that they are ready for people to move in. It is a surrealistic sight to behold.
I met three families who moved into quite attractive and neatly furnished homes after two or more weeks of living in people’s basements or spare rooms. Ganz told me about one young family in Woodmere that has nine of their own children and has taken in another family with seven children. He did the math for me quickly; there are sixteen kids and four adults in that one home, and, he adds, it is not a very big house.
Housing people with large families that have been displaced requires some thinking out of the box, so to speak, and that’s where Inna, Azriel, and Daniel Adar of Brooklyn have put their heads together to make life bearable and livable for these families. Mr. Adar explained that he is searching high and low for suitable temporary residences for people. Along with the assistance of Rabbi Boruch Ber Bender of Achiezer, they are using all their formidable contacts to alleviate this most difficult outgrowth of the storm. Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder has met with Congressman Greg Meeks as well as with Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand to work on a feasible and quick solution.
In the meantime, Rabbi Dovid Greenblatt of Lawrence has reactivated the Community Assistance Fund first introduced during the initial stages of the American economic downturn a few years ago. The group quickly and quietly assembled nearly $2 million from donors—many anonymously—and that money is being distributed with dispatch and efficiency with the exclusive goal of dealing with the housing issue by making it possible for people to return to the homes they were forced to flee as a result of Sandy.
In the first phase, Rabbi Greenblatt has made allocations of $2,000–$3,000 per family plus $200 per child to allow families devastated by the flooding to get back on their feet. He is reviewing applications from hundreds of people for this type of assistance. Applications can be made through the Achiezer office.
In the second phase, allocations or loans of up to $10,000 will be made to families on very favorable terms to facilitate basic repairs on homes to make them livable. This money will be used to deal with mold issues, sheetrocking walls, making electrical repairs, and purchasing new boilers and water heaters where necessary. This week the fund purchased $236,000 worth of boilers and water heaters that will be sold at cost to those who need them.
Adar is looking into temporarily taking over vacant apartments in large buildings but says that rarely are there apartments large enough to accommodate these families. All involved are working to coax and cajole the federal government to come up with caravans or mobile homes as they did by the thousands in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. So far—as of Monday of this week—the government has not committed to the idea and is dragging its feet. Mr. Adar said that he is looking into the idea of procuring a cruise ship with hotel-type accommodations to be docked somewhere nearby to house these families for the months of necessary renovation and in some cases reconstruction of the homes ruined in the storm.
This is the big picture, the plight, the problem, the concern, and the short-term project. On Sunday, Azriel and Inna invited me to step into the real-world dimension of the chesed they are dispensing to regular people who have experienced terrible damage to their homes and who otherwise would be left somewhat adrift until the system was prepared and able to address their specific situation.
Two of the three families did not want to be photographed or even mentioned by name. They have been placed in this circumstance by no fault or action of their own. I understood their discomfort and committed to preserving their anonymity. We stood outside the home on the Woodmere-Hewlett border. I was told the house had been empty and that a mortgage banker who had the contract on the home has quietly come forward and is endeavoring to come up with as many as these homes in the area as possible.
Daniel Adar says that while there are more housing opportunities in Brooklyn, now that yeshivas have resumed their regular schedules it is imperative that, wherever possible, people are placed in or near their home communities.
It was surprising how ready these three homes were for the people moving in. First, they were thoroughly cleaned by a group of extraordinary volunteers led by Jeremy Feder of HALB. Then another group of men and women painted the entire homes from basement to attic. Then another group, led by Justin Fuchs of South Shore Bicycle, oversaw the procurement of furniture, beds, and kitchen appliances (refrigerators and washers and dryers) and set them up in the homes. Still another group stocked the refrigerators and the cupboards with basic foodstuffs. The objective is to allow families to resume normal life after having lost their homes and so many of their belongings.
I was at one of the homes on Sunday when a family arrived with not much more than the clothing they were wearing. The minivan pulled up and five children scooted out, all excited about the new house they were moving into, albeit only temporarily. “We were at a friend’s house in West Hempstead,” the father, who preferred anonymity, told me. When the kids ran upstairs to see their rooms, their mother, who is in her ninth month of pregnancy, just kept repeating the same words: “This is so unbelievable; this is so nice; thank you; we can’t thank you enough.”
Inna Kopel, who is one of the prime moving forces behind this effort, said that the idea occurred to her when the power went out in her North Woodmere home and she had to spend a few nights with her family at a friend’s home. “I thought about the possibility that there are people who do not know people willing to take them in or do not have the resources to go to a hotel or rent another apartment until order is restored,” she said. She explains that the central location and the hub of the effort is at her workout center on Broadway in Woodmere. “We are a close-knit group and we are socially conscious, and find that as a group we cannot stand idly by while there is such a profound need in the community.”
Mr. Ganz is soft-spoken and most of the time defers to Inna. I’ve known him for a number of years and know that in his own quiet and unassuming way he harbors a fierce determination that accomplishes complex tasks and gets things done. Azriel Ganz was one of the individuals who helped build Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere a number of years ago. He is an accomplished attorney and now an industry lobbyist who spends a good deal of time in Washington, DC.
Ganz is athletic and fit and regularly participates in biking marathons for the benefit of an Israeli hospital and similar competitions. Last year he wrote an article about the spinning class that he leads at Inna’s. While that is probably the nature of the connection between the two activists, you can see that there is a lot more than biking or jumping around taking place at Inna’s.
The night after we met, I wrote to Azriel, who is concerned about where he was going to find more houses, to say that a meeting was being set up with FEMA to try to cut through a lot of the red tape and get things done more quickly. He wrote back that he would be happy to attend the meeting but he does not want to insert more bureaucracy into the steps needed to get people into temporary housing.
David and Rachel Hess lived in a home they own on Beach 13th Street in Far Rockaway. They feel differently than the other couples, as they want what they are experiencing to be publicized so that others out there who are going through the same thing should be aware that they are not going through these experiences alone. They are indeed in quite good company.
David ran his business out of his house, and just about everything he had related to the business was lost in the flooding. They’ve also experienced a lot of frustration and feel they have been run around by FEMA even though it is clear that they are victims of the storm and certainly should have already received some of the stopgap funding available from the federal government for people in this type of situation. In fact, Rachel says, just before the weekend she finally got hold of someone at FEMA who told her that her claim was being denied. The reason, they said, was that they had not been able to reach her on her home phone. The home is, of course, unlivable, and the phones in the house have not worked since the night of the storm more than three weeks ago.
So now the race is on to get people either back into their homes or into temporary housing until their homes have been repaired. On Tuesday there was a meeting organized by Boruch Ber Bender of Achiezer and Rabbi Yehiel Kalish of Agudath Israel of America with FEMA officials. Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder was in attendance as was District School Board Chairman Dr. Asher Mansdorf, Achiezer board member Lloyd Keilson, and about a dozen others. The get-together was orderly and informative. But, I have to say, your head spins from all the layers of red tape that are placed out there by government.
I think that one of the misconceptions is that when there is something like the housing emergency that we are experiencing out here for the first time, government agencies will be there to respond. One of the FEMA officials stated very forthrightly that the government is the last responder in these types of situations. I have to say that I did not think that was the case. Or maybe when it comes to something as big or as drastic as housing they have to allow the market to evolve, and they only come into the picture—as the man said—as the last resort.
One of the ideas floating around since the first few days after the hurricane was the possibility of bringing trailers—or caravans, or mobile homes, or whatever you call them—to house people on a temporary basis until their homes are restored and renovated. A fascinating thing emerged from this meeting, and that is that government is reluctant to move members of a community into these types of homes because they are afraid that people will want to remain living there on a permanent basis.
All this does is demonstrate the vast cultural divide that exists when the good people of FEMA are dealing with hurricanes and tornadoes around the country and the issue at hand in Far Rockaway, the Five Towns, and Long Beach. I think I can state categorically that no one in these communities that needs this type of assistance has any designs on living in a FEMA trailer a day longer than necessary.
In the meantime, there is assistance available out there through FEMA and the U.S. Small Business Administration. It features a complicated bureaucratic structure, but the Achiezer organization is committed to helping streamline the process and get those in need the government and other assistance they may need.
It may take a few more weeks, but it will all ultimately come together, gel, and begin to take shape. An additional amazing thing is how just a few short years ago there was no Achiezer to coordinate and organize all this. Right now there are many groups of benevolent and well-meaning people pulling in a variety of direction, all well-intentioned, all with good ideas. It’s vital that the effort be centralized. For more information, call Achiezer at 516-791-4444 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. v
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