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After Joyous Sukkot, Long Road Ahead for Fort Myers Jewish Community

The Sukkot holiday injected a welcome dose of joy into the community of Chabad of Fort Myers, which, just weeks ago, took a clobbering from Hurricane Ian. Eighty six thousand homes in the city are seriously water damaged, with many currently unlivable, and repair costs are astronomical. “We were all happy to set aside the troubles and celebrate together,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Minkowitz of his community. And according to Minkowitz, the Sukkot holiday proved to be phenomenal.

For some, it was their first time celebrating Sukkot. “A lot of new faces joined us,” he says, “whether it was visitors, volunteers who came to help, or local Jews who’d never been to Chabad before.” Many of these new faces had first met Chabad only in recent days due to Chabad’s relief work. 

When architect Haim Zukerman designed Chabad’s building ten years ago, he insisted they build above flood level. “His design saved us big time,” Rabbi Minkowitz says. Remarkably, Mr. Zukerman flew from Israel to be with the Fort Myers community for Sukkot. 

The water-damaged interior of one of Chabad’s three guest houses.

Other parts of Chabad’s five-acre campus were less fortunate. The mikvah, preschool and three guest houses are utterly ruined, and mold is now setting in. Although the cost of repairing has ballooned, Chabad is urgently repairing the guest houses to provide temporary housing for the many who need it. 

With their old supplies and furniture soaked and molding, Chabad’s Maimonides Hebrew Day School now operates out of the synagogue building in an improvised classroom. Even with a long road ahead, Rabbi Minkowitz says the community receives constant reminders that the wider Jewish community is there for them. “Just yesterday,” he says, “a family drove two hours to bring boxes of toys for our preschool, and a school called to say eighty kids volunteered to come distribute food and supplies.”

While juggling his own repairs, Rabbi Minkowitz has turned his synagogue into a hub for relief workers, volunteers, and residents seeking help. Throughout the High Holidays and into Sukkot, Chabad distributed holiday meals to hundreds of community members who’d lost their food supplies. 

Wreckage from Maimonides Hebrew Day School’s ruined building.

Now, people stop by the synagogue at all hours of the day looking for help, whether it’s because they need someone to help repair their homes or because they need temporary housing. “More than anything else people come because they want to talk to someone who cares,” says Rabbi Minkowitz.

After a Sukkot for the books, the Fort Myers Jewish community is working to repair the storm’s damage and get back to normalcy. “There’s a long road ahead,” Rabbi Minkowitz says, “but we’re confident, and we’ll be here for the long haul.”

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