When Judaism Shed Light on Sandy’s Darkness

In the face of disaster, I learned how Jewish communities respond to and make sense of such difficult - and even tragic - situations.

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What a difference a few thousand miles make. Having lived my entire adult life in Israel, it has become the center of my world, certainly my frame of reference for my interactions with the Jewish religion and the Jewish people. Even when I return to the United States, to my closest friends and family, I feel at home, but I feel like an Israeli.

This year, fate brought me to the United States for a visit at a rather tumultuous time. When I left Israel on Wednesday evening, October 24, I expected to experience some autumn rain during my two week visit to the Northeast. What I got, of course, was superstorm Sandy. For my family and me, thankfully, this storm was not much more than an inconvenience. It did, however, change the total nature of my trip, and while I of course wish that there had been no storm (and none of its consequences), I am grateful for what I have seen and learned about American Judaism during this crisis.

I came to the United States with the intention of teaching about the challenges and opportunities of Jewish life in Israel.  With the arrival of Sandy, however, I suddenly became a student, learning how our Jewish communities respond to such difficult and even tragic situations.

Without a doubt, the Jewish community was not unique in banding together to help the greater community. If anything, the responses to the storm have given me renewed faith in humanity, as I have witnessed people with little do whatever they can to help people with even less. Around the East Coast, people collected canned food, opened their homes for those in need of help, donated money to the organizations working the most and so on.

The Jewish communities participated in this and often took a lead, but we were not alone. Even so, we did demonstrate a response that was typically Jewish, by responding spiritually and physically, through action and through prayer, through helping people make sense of the mess, and by helping each other move on with our lives. From Atlantic City to upstate New York, rabbis and synagogues taught me much about how to be a better community leader myself.

I learned how important it is to make one's self accessible. Rabbi Aaron Gaber of Congregation Beth Judah in Ventnor, N.J. (the area hit hardest by the storm), remained at home, even when he had no power or heat, to help coordinate efforts to get others' feet off the ground, to evacuate the elderly, to volunteer in food pantries, and to give moral support to his community. His Facebook page became a social meeting point for letting everyone know where help was needed most, and for organizing that help. In my home town, one local rabbi e-mailed all of his congregants to let them know that his house was open for those who needed just a little bit of electricity. Those small gestures made a big difference.

I also learned the need to make sense of such events. While discussing the events with friends studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary, we tried to understand Sandy in the context of that week's Torah reading, which included the destruction of Sodom and Gemorah. Many pointed out that the damage done to parts of New York City reminded them of the complete destruction described in the Torah, which evoked theological difficulties about whether such destruction was deserved. While we did not ignore the real human responsibility to take care of our environment in order to prevent our role in climate change, comfort was found in a different part of the Torah reading. At the beginning, Abraham welcomes complete strangers into his home. In times of need, the Torah teaches us, hospitality brings benefit both to the guests as well as to the hosts

Sometimes the solution to giving comfort was simply through prayer. At Hadar, a lay-led community service in Manhattan, participants chanted one of the psalms traditionally read in times of distress. The psalm appropriately noted that our help comes from the Divine that created the world, a world that sometimes causes destruction, but also has in it the opportunity to rebuild and to help. Knowing that Jews for millennia have repeated these words in times of need gave many the strength to move forward.

Perhaps most importantly, I learned that there are times when we have to continue to live our lives as best we can. At New York's B'nai Jeshurun synagogue, a young man with special needs beautifully read from the Torah on Saturday afternoon in order to mark his becoming a Bar Mitzvah. The entire service was dedicated to making Judaism more meaningful for all people, both with recognizable special needs and without. Those who had no heat or power, those who had become refugees from their own homes, and those who had been hosting others for a week all joined together to celebrate this young man's milestone. Storm or no storm, the community recognized that this was a time for joy.

Together, these many experiences truly highlighted the values of Judaism. During my time in the East Coast following Sandy, it was clear that my world and the entire Jewish world rested on three things: study, worship, and acts of loving-kindness. This combination allowed the Jewish communities to shed whatever light they could on a region plagued with darkness.

The skyline of lower Manhattan after a preventive power outage caused by giant storm Sandy in New York Oct. 30, 2012.Credit: Reuters