When the lights went out, many of us gained new insight into the sacred nature of our work, the opportunities we regularly have to support each other, and the degree to which we could have been better prepared.
For congregations and many of the organizations we serve, the power of the place is in relationships. Those could not be removed by Superstorm Sandy. We just needed to work harder to connect with each other and often recreate our community in new spaces, both physical and virtual.
Old-fashioned paper lists of members that are up to date and identify people by their age, address, work, and cell phones — as well as their children’s and/or grandchildren’s names and ages —helped us keep track of our membership. Our congregation merged our membership list with Google maps to identify the neighborhood clusters of our membership for Shabbat havurot. These groups also ensure that we know our neighbors and empower members to check in on each other.
Facebook was an invaluable resource to inform the community about the state of the crisis, how to access resources, how the building and offices were doing, and where the synagogue’s school and services were taking place. I used Facebook to connect people with resources and with people who were in need, and to offer spiritual and emotional support.
I tried to remind people of the coping mechanisms and stress-relieving acts they have used in the past and encouraged them to call upon their own internal resources. It was important for people to know that they are not alone in their grief, anger, confusion, and emotion. It was often very difficult to get people to ask for help or accept offers from friends and family. Americans’ drive for self-sufficiency needs to be countered by the message of community: You do not need to survive on your own. Our communities are here to help.
The greatest lesson I believe we must take away from Sandy is that our communities can no longer be defined by their boundaries and what happens within their walls. In the storm, we were equalized. We are all vulnerable to the elements. This vulnerability and our shared needs broke down the boundaries that usually keep us separate.
In the aftermath of the storm there was no question that the synagogues in our area could share resources. In South Orange, Oheb Shalom Congregation hosted Beth El for morning minyan and for two Shabbat services during which we had bat mitzva celebrations. Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel welcomed our preschool into their building. TSTI and Beth El’s Jewish Learning Center held a joint Sunday morning program of study and service projects.
What we must take into the future is this question: Why do we need a superstorm to share resources and work together? Isn’t there an incredible amount of duplication of efforts and need for support that happens on a daily basis among neighboring synagogues and institutions in our town? Can’t we all do more to share our resources and support each other without a crisis?
Whether it is about making a minyan, caring for the sick, doing the sacred work of hevra kadisha, or event bundling such services as landscaping and snow removal so we can get better pricing — the opportunities for sharing abound.
All of this learning applies to the caregivers and leaders of the organizations as well. I can speak for rabbis and say that we need to be better colleagues and support each other more, and more regularly. We share common experiences and challenges and do ourselves and our communities a disservice when we do not reach out and support each other. Who said the rabbi has to do it alone? Who better understands your struggles and situation than a fellow colleague?
Synagogues and communal organizations cannot rely on e-mail to communicate with its members; neither can our rabbinic and international organizations. Nothing can replace the experience of having a voice on the other end of the phone ask how you are doing, listen for the answer, and express empathy for your situation.
In many ways Superstorm Sandy made our lives difficult. It continues to present many of us with day-to-day challenges. However, we must not forget the lessons learned in our rush to return to “normal.” The “new normal” demands that we reach out to our members where they are, break down the barriers and boundaries that have kept us isolated, and remember the core value of human relationships.
We are not alone, and we need each other. We have a great many resources in our faith, our Torah, our communities, our friends and family. Let’s learn to share!