Shabbat Storm: Jews in Southeastern U.S. Brace for Irma by 'Storm-proofing' Torah Scrolls

Jews in Florida have fled Irma, which threatens to make this Shabbat a stormy and very dangerous one: 'In Florida, Torahs are being taken out of their synagogues'

Congregants at Charleston's Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim wrap their Torah scrolls in protective plastic ahead of Hurricane Irma.
Allison Kaplan Sommer

CHARLESTON – What is set to be anything but a peaceful Sabbath began across the southeastern United States as Jews, with their neighbors, nervously waiting for Hurricane Irma to hit the continent after ripping a path of death and destruction across the Caribbean.

After Friday night services concluded in Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, the second oldest synagogue in the U.S., located in in Charleston, South Carolina, Rabbi Stephanie Alexander invited members of her congregation to help her wrap the their precious Torah scrolls in plastic and seal them with duct tape to protect them from an impending storm.

>> LIVE UPDATES: Irma bears down on Florida; millions told to flee coast <<

“In Florida, we are seeing Torahs being taken out of their synagogues and driven around to all kinds of places for safekeeping,” she explained. “From experience in other storms, I’ve learned that there is nowhere safer for ours than here, in their place in the synagogue,” she said, pointing to the solid wood doors that protected them. But for extra protection, she said, she made sure to seal them in plastic, just in case.

After the scrolls were carefully wrapped and placed back in their ark, the synagogue shut down for the weekend - Saturday services had been cancelled, following other congregations in town that decided not to meet on Friday night. In communities where the storm was expected to hit earlier and stronger in Florida, Torah scrolls had long since been taken to safe high ground. Florida congregations had learned from bitter experience, and did their best to spare their holy books the fate of those which have been destroyed or have forced community members to take risk as flood waters rose after storms like Katrina, Sandy and most recently, Harvey. 

Attendance at the Charleston service was thin: most of the community had left town, nervous about projections that showed Hurricane Irma slamming into the southeastern city. Their places were taken by two families of refugees from Florida, who had driven north to escape the storm. In the hours just before Shabbat, it turned out the family had made a wise choice driving northeast instead of inland towards Atlanta, Georgia where most other Florida Jews had done, and where the Jewish community had launched a large-scale effort to receive them - one Orthodox synagogue alone took in more than 1,000 Florida refugees for the Sabbath.

In a last minute change, the storm's track shifted west, appearing to spare the Carolina coast the worst of the impact. 

While the Charleston Jews breathe a cautious sigh of relief for themselves and their community, many were still deeply worried about Florida relatives and friends who were in transit, or most worryingly, had remained at home, having decided to ride out the storm. Those who stayed behind unable to find flights out of town and fearful of the traffic jams and gas shortages reported by those who had fled north.  

Congregants at Charleston's Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim wrap their Torah scrolls in protective plastic ahead of Hurricane Irma.
Allison Kaplan Sommer

For the Floridians who remained, “it honestly doesn't feel like Shabbat at all,” said Debbie Laznik, who was hunkered down in her home in Boca Raton on Friday night after having spent the day stocking up on essentials anticipating the possible loss of power for many days. “We are completely consumed with preparations and anticipation.”

The only place, it seemed, where real Sabbath peace existed was beyond the storm’s range, where families had flown their loved ones out of Florida - from elderly parents to college students -  out of harm’s way, earlier in the week.

Peace of mind didn’t come cheap, said Karen Paul, a Maryland resident who had just dropped her daughter Talia off at Eckerd College in Tampa only a few weeks earlier and had watched with panic as the storm grew in intensity. By the time she was able to purchase an airline ticket home for her frustrated freshman, the price had skyrocketed to $700.

It was worth it, she said, particularly after watching reports that the storm was shifting west, Tampa was poised to be hard hit, and had been completely evacuated. 

“As I lit the Shabbat candles, I was just so thankful to have the resources to keep her safe."