When Hurricane Sandy made landfall in late October, it left much of New York City and its surrounding communities in shambles, sending shockwaves all the way to Los Angeles.
Touched by the stories of devastation, three local rabbis and their congregations pulled together to raise nearly $75,000 in one week to help residents in the Five Towns on Long Island and Far Rockaway, Queens, both areas with vibrant Jewish communities.
When Rav Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea in Pico-Robertson, Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City (YICC) and Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills received an e-mail from Rabbi Hershel Billet of Young Israel of Woodmere — located in a neighborhood in the Five Towns — describing the destruction the community suffered, they knew they had to help.
“That’s in the Jewish DNA,” Muskin said. “Of course, you help out. That’s what one does.”
Billet said that his community had never needed to reach out for help — that was, until Sandy occurred.
“We are, thank God, a pretty generous community, and we generally take care of ourselves. I declined everyone’s offer [to help] initially, until we realized the magnitude of what everyone went through in this community.”
The damage was enormous: Billet’s home was heavily damaged, as were hundreds of others in his and nearby neighborhoods. The synagogue flooded, and the structure and furniture were ravaged. When power was lost, services were held in the dark with flashlights; when power was restored, the shul became a center for Wi-Fi and cell phone charging, as well as a place for the hungry to eat.
Billet estimates that the total amount of damage was in the tens of millions of dollars. To help offset that, the community has collected more than $2 million worth of donations so far.
In his original e-mail, Billet wrote that his community hasn’t, in the past, reached out for aid. Instead, it was always the one helping out.
“I never thought I would be in a position to ask for money,” he said. “We always gave, we never took. Now we need to take.”
Hurricane Sandy left no other choice.
“Rabbi Billet is suffering,” Muskin said. “[This money] is for people in the community who he knows have been hurt terribly and don’t have insurance that they need. He is the man on the ground they need the most.”
The Jewish obligation to give tzedakah wasn’t the only reason that the three Los Angeles synagogues decided to donate. Each rabbi has personal ties to Billet: Muskin is a friend and colleague of the New York rabbi; Kanefsky grew up in the Far Rockaway area, and his brother is a congregant of Young Israel of Woodmere; and Topp once worked as a rabbi at the shul with Billet.
“That community is very similar to our community here in Los Angeles in many ways,” Topp said. “I’ve been very gratified by the response of our community. It was very meaningful and nice for the three synagogues to come together.”
Although Kanefsky’s synagogue has donated to relief efforts for disasters before, he said that the response from his congregants in this case has been tremendous.
“There is a broad sense that this is an event the likes of which we’ve never really seen before. People are profoundly affected. They are talking a lot about it and shaken up by it.”
Although Billet is in disbelief at the extent of the damage, he is grateful for the support from B’nai David-Judea, Beth Jacob and YICC.
“I’ve only seen [natural disasters] like Katrina on television, but I never saw anything like this or thought I would be affected by it,” he said. “I thank all the people who have expressed concern.”
To make donations to the cause, visit yiwoodmere.org/donatesandy.cfm.