Tuesday, / April 23, 2024
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Of Hurricanes And Heroes


The images are familiar by now: windswept beaches, swaying palms, and miles of cars moving at a snail’s pace as their frightened passengers flee the storm’s wrath. The aftermath is also tragically familiar. Streets littered with fallen trees, their giant roots upended, looming bizarrely on the ground. Roof shingles, shrubs, debris and grapefruits litter the landscape as crowds line up for basic necessities—water, ice, food, generators, tarpaulins. There are still hundreds of thousands of people without power in South Florida ….and it is hot.

But disasters sometimes come with a silver lining that reveal the best in humanity. Neighbors are helping neighbors and for a time, there are no strangers. One family with a freezer full of defrosted meat put up a grand barbecue for the entire neighborhood. An elderly man who was waiting a long time in a line for ice, instantly gave up his place to a mother who needed it for her child. People on the street were invited into homes by total strangers.

Rabbi Chaim Konikov, director of Chabad of the Space Coast in Satellite Beach says that he has seen people counting their blessings. “They say, thank G-d that our families are okay, thank G-d it was not a category 4, thank G-d it was not worse.” The Chabad House, located directly facing the ocean less than 50 miles from where the eye of the storm made landfall, sustained major damage, and the Konikovs, like thousands of Brevard & Indian River County residents are still without power or drinking water. Rabbi Konikov and all residents of the Barrier Islands were under a mandatory evacuation.

The Chabad community is distributing ice and batteries and doing whatever they can to help. “There is an elderly, frail gentleman in our congregation who lives alone and has no family,” says Konikov. “He does not venture out of his home very often and would not evacuate, no matter how much I pleaded with him. I stayed in constant touch with him throughout the storm and his spirits remained high. However, he became distraught when a large tree fell across his driveway and he could not get the car out. Finding a chain saw to cut it down was an almost impossible task, but I got lucky and we had a crew of volunteers organized to get him out. I offered to put on tefillin with one of the volunteers and while I was doing that, another Jew walked by, out of the blue and said ‘I’m thankful to G-d that I was spared, could I put on tefillin too?’

“The repercussions of the hurricane are everywhere,” says Konikov. “One of our congregants unfortunately passed away during the storm and funeral arrangements were hampered by high water levels at the cemetery, a power outage at the funeral home and many other complications you don’t even think of in normal times.”

At the University of Miami in Coral Gables, the students were put on a 36 hour lockdown and were not permitted to leave the dorms for any reason from Friday night through Sunday morning. Rabbi Mendy and Henchi Fellig, directors of Chabad at the University of Miami, were determined that the approximately 600 Jewish students not miss out on Shabbat dinner, and volunteered to take over a dining room and prepare the meals. University regulations would not permit it however, so they decided to deliver Shabbat to the students. “I found a bakery in Hialeah that promised to donate and deliver challah to us,” said Rabbi Fellig, “but did not actually believe it would happen until I got a call that there were about 50 hot challahs in our Chabad House. I looked through our storage supplies and found a few bottles of grape juice and said to my wife ‘let’s start cooking, we have the makings for Shabbat dinner.’”

The Felligs put together a food brigade with volunteer students and delivered challah, grape juice, gefilte fish and chicken to the Jewish students who arranged for Shabbat dinner in their rooms. The Felligs usually have about 100 students join them at the Chabad House for services and meals on Shabbat. “But,” says Rabbi Fellig, “on this Friday night, many more students than that celebrated Shabbat because some of the kids who never attend either Chabad or Hillel saw students walking around with challah and said, ‘Hi, I’m Jewish too, can I join you?’ So a lot of people, whom we may never have met, celebrated Shabbat because of Hurricane Frances, even if it only meant having a slice of challah – this time.”

Dozens of Chabad rabbis across Southern Florida are all struggling to meet the needs of their communities while dealing with the damage to their own homes and synagogues. One community suffered a double whammy. Chabad of Greater Daytona in Ormond Beach was hit by last month’s Hurricane Charley and again this week by Frances. Directors Rabbi Pinchus Ezaugi and his wife Chanie say their congregants have been devastated. “Many of our people lost their retail businesses along the beach,” said Rabbi Ezaugi. “Their stores were destroyed or severely damaged.”

Some 50 community members of Chabad of Ormond Beach evacuated to Alpharetta, Georgia—the only city where hotel rooms were available, explains Rabbi Ezagui. “They drove almost 15 hours to get there and Rabbi Hirsch Minkowitz, director of Chabad in Alpharetta took care of their needs for Shabbat. He provided them with a Torah scroll and prayer books and served as their host.”

Ezagui says that when the people returned home, Chabad helped with food and shelter and even financial aid for repairs that were not covered by insurance. “During Hurricane Charley, we had almost 100 people for Shabbat services, despite no lights or air conditioning,” he said. “This time about 40 people came to our synagogue on Friday night. They knew we would not close.”

The Ormond Beach Chabad House was thankfully spared damage. “It was actually quite a miracle because many trees fell down in our area and one tree right next to our building fell the other way, just missing our spanking brand new beautiful Mikvah. G-d and our Rebbe were looking out for us,” Rabbi Ezagui says.


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