No one would have asked for the shocking damage wrought by Hurricane Irene, but the Aug. 28 storm has left some wonders in its wake.
In Cranford, one of the worst-hit towns in New Jersey, the Conservative congregation Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim suffered an estimated $150,000 worth of flood damage to its basement and boiler room, but, according to members, it gained an outpouring of fellowship.
Showing a reporter around a couple of weeks ago, education director Tamara Ruben recalled how in the aftermath of the storm, she took off her shoes and waded through the knee-high water that filled the temple basement trying to rescue books and materials. “Everything on the lower shelves of bookcases and lower drawers of desks and filing cabinets was ruined,” she said.
The temple’s Watch Me Grow nursery and its before- and after-school child care service had to be closed for this school year. But Ruben still had to find replacement classroom space for the 41 students in the synagogue’s religious school.
That’s when Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah, the Conservative congregation in Clark, stepped in and offered the use of its classrooms.
“I just can’t say enough about them,” Ruben said. “They have been the most wonderful hosts. Their kindness and hospitality have been unbelievable.”
(With gleaming new flooring and freshly painted walls, the Beth-El Mekor Chayim classrooms are almost ready. Classes will resume there in the new year.)
Rabbi Joshua Hess of Congregation Anshe Chesed, the Orthodox synagogue in Linden, and Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom, the Reform congregation in Fanwood, also proffered help.
And then there was the kindness coming from Beth-El Mekor Chayim members. John Harris, cochair of the hesed or caring committee, said that between 15 and 20 congregant families were forced out of their homes. Before the storm had even passed, congregants were offering assistance. They took people into their homes, brought food to others, offered use of their showers and washing machines, and donated clothing and furniture to replace what was lost. One woman made her credit card number available for temple members affected by the flood who wanted to buy food for themselves at Deli King, the kosher restaurant in Clark.
‘People were incredible’
Among those displaced were Craig and Rachel Schwartz of Cranford and their two children. This past week, at long last, they have their home to themselves. The contractors finally finished repairing the damage done by the hurricane.
The Schwartzes live on Pine Street, right next to the Rahway River. On the advice of the police, they evacuated even before the storm reached its peak. They didn’t have to go far; Craig — a lifelong member of Beth-El Mekor Chayim — grew up in Cranford, and his parents still live there, in a drier part of town. What they didn’t expect was to have to stay there for more than a month before they could move back home. The water had filled their basement and risen a foot high in the living room.
“It could have been terrible — it was pretty bad — but it could have been really awful, and it wasn’t — because of the synagogue community,” Rachel said. “I can’t say we were surprised. This has always been a very close-knit, supportive community, but people were really incredible. Every time I turned around, there was someone else from the shul there to lend a hand. Even someone in the same boat, whose own home was also damaged, reached out to help us.”
The spirit of caring delights Harris. The hesed committee, which he cochairs with his close friend Jacki Cheslow, was started last April. They have a step-by-step plan to coordinate volunteer assistance where and when it is needed, from shopping and cooking for a family in distress to arranging for rides to medical appointments.
“And then this happened,” Harris said.
He said one of the most wonderful aspects was the way every group within the congregation got involved, “from the very young to the very old and all those in between.”
The first Shabbat after the storm, congregants went to Beth O’r/Beth Torah, some walking the two miles to Clark. By the second Friday after the storm, thanks to the huge team effort to get everything working, Beth-El Mekor Chayim leader Rabbi Ben Goldstein was able to have a “healing Shabbat.” About 150 people came, out of a total membership of around 275.
Congregation copresident Harold Oslick acknowledged that the financial picture is tough, given the revenue lost from suspending the preschool, and with some members unable to fulfill their pledges because of their own flood problems. But those who can have really stepped up. By the time of last week’s board meeting, he said, a restoration fund started a month earlier had already drawn $75,000 to cover repairs.
Goldstein, who joined the temple just 13 months before Irene blew through, said, “It’s been a trying time for the congregation, but it’s made us a stronger, closer community.”
People have seen what is important to them, and how everyone cares for one another, he said — and not just within the temple. “The other congregations — including those from other denominations — were so eager to help, it was fantastic. It really gave us the feeling of being one Jewish community in Union County.”