Wednesday, November 14, 2012

For Congregation Leaders, Hurricane Is Taking a Toll

Rabbi Marjorie Slome, left, held the Sabbath service on Friday
at West End Temple in the Rockaways in Queens
where prayer books and Torah commentaries were ruined by flooding.
Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
...Across the vast region hit by Hurricane Sandy, dozens of houses of worship are dealing with an extraordinary circumstance. Normally, their clergy members and lay leaders would be spending these weeks occupied with the urgent mission of feeding and caring for congregants hurt by the storm. But leaders of congregations whose buildings were flooded, damaged or destroyed are finding themselves in the emotionally difficult position of having to ask for help themselves.

In the Rockaways section of Queens, Rabbi Marjorie Slome visits her Reform Jewish congregation, West End Temple, each day to see what she can salvage. All of the prayer books and Torah commentaries were ruined when flooding filled the basement and reached up to four feet on the first floor. The sanctuary, offices and social hall were covered in inches of muck.

“I fully expected to come in here on Tuesday and open up my temple to serve the community and let it be a food distribution place,” she said. “And we couldn’t. Instead, I’m going around telling volunteers helping us, ‘It’s unsanitary: put your mask on; wear your gloves.’ ”...

One aspect of the storm’s aftermath is how some clergy members are themselves suffering, said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Some rabbis, he said, had told him they found the week after the storm “one of the most exhausting of their lives.”

Some clergy members remain without power in their own homes, yet they spend their days calling and visiting their congregants, helping them through their losses and isolation. “It’s an emotional overload,” Rabbi Freelander said. “It’s like having 30 funerals in a week.”

Some congregations have flood insurance, but others do not, adding to that stress. While offers of help have poured in from all over, matching the resources with the needs can itself be a bewildering full-time task, particularly when communication through landlines is spotty, and when so many congregants are displaced....

Jewish congregations took special steps to deal with damaged texts that they view as sacred. In Brooklyn, where Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe of Brighton Beach, a Lubavitch synagogue and school, had been flooded under six feet of water, worshipers laid waterlogged Torah scrolls across the pews in an effort to salvage the parchment. Chesed shel Emes, an Orthodox emergency recovery squad, rushed to Ohab Zedek Synagogue in Belle Harbor, Queens, to pull holy books out of the water-filled basement. And in the Rockaways, volunteers at the West End Temple separated out a pile of damaged prayer books that according to Jewish law need to be buried.  -- Sharon Otterman, NY Times

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