“Man is likened to a broken potshard, to withering grass, to a fading flower, to a passing shadow, to a vanishing cloud, to a blowing wind, to dust that scatters and to a fleeting dream.” Rosh Hashana Liturgy.
To the hurricane-weary Jewish communities of Florida and the Gulf Coast, these words from the High Holiday prayers resonated more deeply than ever as they ushered in the New Year 5765. The tree branches and debris which littered the streets around the synagogues served as grim reminders that life is ephemeral and should not be taken for granted, and yet, everywhere there was a sense of optimism and hopefulness.
Although Hurricane Ivan did his best to dampen both streets and spirits in Birmingham, Alabama and New Orleans, Louisiana, Chabad’s Rosh Hashana services went on as scheduled. Because many of the synagogues in both storm-beleaguered cities had cancelled services in advance of the holiday, Chabad remained one of the few places where Jews could find a minyan and hear the sounding of the shofar.
At the Chabad center in Birmingham, the power went off during the Musaf service on the first day of Rosh Hashana and is still off for thousands of residents. Holiday services, however, were not cancelled, and for the next two days congregants made do with candlelight and emergency lights. Rabbi Yossi Posner, director of Chabad of Alabama says that he was “amazed at the tenacity and courage of our members who braved the wind and the rain to get to us and then suffered through the heat and semi darkness in order to participate in the New Year services.”
Mrs. Leni Epstein, a homemaker in Birmingham was there when the storm hit and recalls that “it was a very spiritual moment because we were not hurt even though we could hear the wind howling and see the trees bending. About one quarter through the service, the lights went out, but we still were able to celebrate Rosh Hashana.”
Another congregant, Lee Rubin, director of operations for a visual health service, thought it was “quite remarkable. The wind was blowing at 70 mph and we were praying with all our might. The power went on and off and by the second day it was off completely. When it got dark, the emergency lights illuminated the building somewhat and we prayed by the light of candles and tea lights. All the hardship made it even more memorable and meaningful. One nice thing was that [since other services were cancelled] we had participants from other synagogues, even some of their board members, who came just to hear the Shofar. It was a wonderful feeling of unity.”
In Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans, two thirds of the population evacuated before the holidays when it looked like Ivan was aiming for a direct hit. According to Mrs. Chanie Nemes who directs the Chabad House in Metairie with her husband Rabbi Yoseph Nemes, “nine out of ten synagogues cancelled services but the Chabad House remained open. Those Jewish families who stayed behind were so happy to have a place to pray they even came out during the curfew on Wednesday night and when they told the officers they were going to a synagogue, they were allowed to pass.”
Chabad Lubavitch of Florida, with an astounding 103 Chabad centers throughout the state, mobilized their resources to ensure that every Jew would have a place to pray during the High Holidays. It is estimated that almost 12,000 Jewish men, women and children attended Rosh Hashana services at a Chabad synagogue in Florida this past weekend.
A unique project that was initiated a decade ago by Rabbi Pinny and Gitty Andrusier, directors of Chabad Lubavitch of SW Broward, took on added significance this year. The program, which offers High Holiday services for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in a nearby luxury hotel, complete with accommodations, meals, lectures and a parallel children’s program, was fortuitous for the many families who were affected by the triple hurricanes. Many had been without power for periods of a day to more than two weeks and food stocks at kosher grocers were sparse. Knowing that they had a place to go for the holidays was comforting and uplifting.
Although Rabbi Andrusier had a few anxious moments of his own in anticipation of the storm, he remained optimistic. “We had over 450 people who were counting on us, some of them elderly Jews who could not attend synagogue on their own, or young families with children who were looking forward to celebrating together. But I prayed it would work out.” Andrusier’s prayers were answered and the holiday went off without a hitch.
Hirsch and Hensha Gansbourg from Boca Raton were repeat guests, having attended last year’s event as well. “The entire weekend was very uplifting and spiritual,” says Hensha. “There was a general feeling of warmth and I loved that we had scholars there so that when the services were over, we could still maintain that high by attending the most enlightening lectures.”
Dr. Leon Weissberg, director of the Federation’s Jewish Education Commission in Boca Raton said he enjoyed the holiday more than ever. “The services were very meaningful. Rabbi Pinny always does a wonderful job as far as spirituality. There was a wonderful group of people, I found it very inspiring.”
At Chabad of Greater Boynton Beach, 350 people attended services, including about 75 children who participated in the new parallel children’s program which was established this year.
Directors Rabbi Sholom and Dinie Ciment are particularly proud of the new program which allows parents and children to learn together and to participate in the interactive services and activities. “We found that some parents were getting as much out of the service as the children because it was on a beginners’ level which they wanted,” said Rabbi Ciment.
Terry Abraham, a young mother with children ages 5, 3 and 2 said she and her husband Robert took turns staying with the children. “We thought the program was wonderful” said Terry, “and the teachers that were hired to run it were awesome. It was a very special holiday for us and we all learned a lot.”
For Rabbi Ciment, the entire weekend was summed up by the Tashlich service. “We had hundreds of men, women and children standing around our nearby lake, spiritedly singing Jewish songs, just as the sun was setting on a beautiful Rosh Hashana.”