Stuart Katz, general manager of IsraAir, never thought he’d spend an all night session on the phone with rabbis from Chabad. But that’s what happened on Thursday night as members from Lubavitch headquarters’ relief team scrambled to bring thousands of self-heating meals to Florida communities recovering from the wrath of Hurricane Wilma.
By 2 p.m. on Friday, Rabbi Shalom Wilhelm was still burning up the phone lines with Katz as IsraAir used its contacts to find precious cargo space on a flight into Fort Lauderdale. Cargo flights into the stricken area were nearly non-existent, and those flying were already packed tight with Federal relief supplies.
“We’ve been mobilized at the request of Chabad representatives in Florida to put together the provisions,” said Rabbi Mendy Sharfstein who also coordinated the Katrina relief efforts for Lubavitch Headquarters. “We don’t have an official name for the effort, but there is a need so Chabad is responding.”
As Shabbat neared, Chabad pulled off a miracle. An American Airlines plane was loaded with the supplies and took off to Florida. On Saturday night, Chabad representatives from Florida’s worst hit area would be waiting with transport vehicles. Volunteers, who had arrived at local Chabad centers, would run the meals over to those in need as soon as they could be unpacked. Another shipment of meals would arrive on Sunday morning. Chabad representatives in Cocounut Creek, West Pompano Beach, Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale, Cooper City, Hallandale, Coral Springs, Tamarac, Sunrise and Highland Park were set to distribute the packaged meals, manufactured by Euro Cut-Labriut Inc. These special meals are self-heating and do not require refrigeration. “Mr. Abe Halberstam, president of Labriut,” says Rabbi Wilhelm, “was tremendously helpful to us in this regard.”
A glance at the Florida skyline reveals the predicament faced by Florida’s elderly population. An upper floor apartment was a choice location in balmy southern Florida until Hurricane Wilma knocked out power and the elevators stopped running. As days without electricity wore on, seniors held hostage by their inability to descend flights to get scarce food supplies got desperate. The order to boil all drinking water meant fragile seniors, too shaky to handle scalding water, began to suffer from thirst and risk dehydration.
“Even though we are surviving,” said Chabad representative Baila Gansburg, a coordinator of the Florida end of the relief effort, “we must not forget about the elderly.” Gansburg’s Chabad center in Coconut Creek and West Pompano Beach lost its roof to Wilma. But with people in need, rebuilding would have to wait.
The Gansburg home, de facto relief headquarters in Coconut Creek, has been running its electric generator to compensate for the downed power lines. “Some people are happy to come here for a kind word and a cup of hot coffee,” she said. Others need more. Gansburg cooked up a pot of macaroni and cheese on her propane-powered grill, comfort food for two families from New Orleans, who fled to Florida after losing their homes to Katrina. “They can’t take much more of this.”
Since Wilma struck, Chabad-Lubavitch volunteers have been distributing gallons of bottled water and sandwiches to seniors and others in need. A Miami Chabad center sent in a truckload of bottled water yesterday, and today Chabad was able to acquire a pallet of bottled water, all of which was distributed by Friday afternoon.
The Chabad-Lubavitch international network of centers has long been a world wide web of help. Importing food for Tsunami survivors in Thailand and bringing clean up help in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina and Rita are two recent instances where Chabad’s intimate knowledge of local need allowed it to act quickly and effectively for those in need. Chabad’s history of humanitarian aid dates back to the movement’s infancy. Chabad’s founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), sent aid to starving Jews in Israel and founded Colel Chabad, a relief organization still active in Israel and the former Soviet Union. Bringing emergency meals to elderly people in Florida is simply the latest chapter in Chabad’s mission of caring.