By Rochelle Maruch Miller
Think of sitting in the comfort of your home and suddenly hearing eerie noises. Within seconds you see water seeping into your rooms from the shower, sink, and toilet. To your horror, you realize the water is backing up into your house and you are powerless to prevent it from coming in and wreaking havoc. As the water continues to rise, your furniture begins floating, leaving a few moments to save your precious possessions. Everything else is either permanently damaged or destroyed; a lifetime of memories lost forever. Within minutes you realize that what you are experiencing is not a nightmare from which you will awake but rather a disaster of horrific magnitude.
In Oceanside, as in many others ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, there was no response from 911 when the storm hit. A situation described by Harley Greenbaum, the shul’s president, as “unique in my experience,” all power was down and response units were unable to get there. Their homes devoid of heat and power, few residents were able to remain in their homes during the first two weeks following the storm. For six weeks, Rabbi Jonathan Muskat, Young Israel of Oceanside’s rabbi, and his family, were out of their home, and the shul remained closed for two weeks.
Although 80—90% of the homes in this residential community were damaged, most of its residents were able to return to their homes. But it was the shul and mikveh that were most severely impacted by Sandy’s fury. All told, it will cost $400,000 to renovate the structure and repair the damage incurred by the storm’s wrath.
“It’s difficult to look back at the last few months and think about anything other than the terrible destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy,” says Harley. “Very few people have experienced a natural disaster of this magnitude in their lifetime. All of us who went through it certainly hope we never experience anything like it again. The damage to our homes, our shul, our mikveh, and our community in general was beyond comprehension. I can remember the first two weeks or so after the storm, when people were still in shock. We were trying to stay warm, find gas, find a place to sleep, and most of all get information–any information. Information about FEMA, about flood insurance, about when LIPA was finally going to turn on the power in Oceanside.”
He recalls receiving telephone calls, eâ€‘mails, and visits, within a few days of the storm, from shul members seeking information or help. “But far and above, most were looking to find out how the shul had fared, how other community members were doing, and most of all, what they could do to help.”
Rising to the challenge, the Young Israel of Oceanside membership, under the dynamic leadership of Rabbi Muskat, bonded in a show of emunah, chizuk, and achdus, reaching out to one another and providing succor and support. Comprising 200 families, from longtime residents to its most recent newcomers who have been warmly welcomed and are now an integral part of its fabric, Young Israel of Oceanside community has a well-known reputation of looking out for one another.
Lay leadership performed outstanding service, contacting FEMA and other relief organizations and organizing housing. Picking up the pieces of their devastated community, they contacted individual families, dispensing chizuk and serving as a beacon of hope amid a sea of despair.
Nothing, however, could prepare Harley Greenbaum for the painful experience of being in a dark, damp shul and seeing three sifrei Torah completely unrolled over the top of benches and tables in a vain attempt to dry them out and save them from becoming sheimos. “Suddenly all the other damage, personal or otherwise, paled in comparison to what I had just seen,” he wrote in a recent edition of Chadashot, the shul’s newsletter. “After touring the shul, I walked home in a daze. I got to our house and sat down on the front steps.”
Upon seeing him, Harley’s wife, Suri, came out and immediately inquired about the situation at shul. Had there been much damage? Were any of the sefarim lost? Were the sifrei Torah intact? Unable to answer, Harley wept. “The words just wouldn’t come out, but the tears were rolling down my face. I was sad, shocked, terrified, and angry.” Harley describes that gut-wrenching experience as being a turning point. From that point on, he began to channel that sadness and anger into action. “Fortunately, I had plenty of great people ready, willing, and able to help me,” he recalls. “We immediately formed a YIO Emergency Management Team. It started out with phone calls and eâ€‘mails and quickly became meetings held at least once a week in the dining room of Debra and Benji Alper (one of the few families lucky enough to get by with no damage from the storm).
Around the Alpers’ dining-room table they sat, “victims of the storm helping the victims of the storm, often putting our friends and neighbors before ourselves.” Among the critical issues discussed at these meetings were finding housing, food, water, clothing, and blankets; help with insurance and FEMA; repairing the eiruv; coordinating volunteer helpers; where to put the growing piles of sheimos; and getting generator power into shul so they could daven with lights and heat.
In the ensuing weeks and months since the meetings began, the lists have decreased in size as Oceanside continues to pick up the pieces and rebuild. The Young Israel community has intensified its focus on the shul, mikveh, caretaker’s house, and youth director’s house. Undertaking an endeavor of this magnitude involves an enormous expense; to that end, the shul community has increased its fundraising efforts. Recently, the shul won the Yeshiva University Seforim Sale contest, bringing home $10,000 worth of sefarim.
“We are making amazing progress on all fronts,” says Harley. “All four construction sites are actively being repaired and rebuilt, and ultimately they will be more functional and nicer looking than they were before.” He spoke of the many Young Israel shuls that had reached out to his shul during this difficult time, expressing much gratitude to the National Council of Young Israel, as well as to Young Israel of West Hempstead, Young Israel of Hillcrest, Young Israel of New Rochelle, and the East Hill Synagogue in Englewood, New Jersey, all of whom joined in the relief efforts.
He made special mention of the YIO’s young alumni who grew up in Oceanside for their incredible effort on behalf of our shul in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Rebecca Saidlower, an exemplary alumna, mounted a Facebook campaign that rallied young people who once lived in the community. This campaign raised $20,000—$30,000 of much-needed funds for the shul and represents the sense of achdus that exists, even among former residents of the community.
Standing together 200 strong, the Young Israel of Oceanside community looks to the future with emunah and optimism, gaining in strength with each passing day. A community of chesed which has suffered terribly in the aftermath of the storm, “we are now way ahead of fundraising and construction compared to our counterparts who have had the equivalent amount of damage, some of whom are just starting to do their repairs now,” Harley says. “With Hashem’s help, we will be fully operational at some point during the summer, in time for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur davening in our main shul.” v