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Jewish Journal

Yom Kippur During Hurricane Georges

July 30, 1998 | 8:00 pm

Milton Grishman, president of Congregation Beth Israel in Biloxi, Miss., was practicing the chanting of the Book of Jonah, in preparation for Yom Kippur, when Hurricane Georges hit.

"I was reading about the mighty tempest that came up from the sea," Grishman said. "And then here it was, blowing right up my street. It all felt very real this year."

It, meaning the wrath of the Almighty, was so real this year that Biloxi's lone synagogue couldn't even hold Kol Nidre services. Roads were impassable, the synagogue had no power, and the town was under dusk-to-dawn curfew. They did manage to meet Yom Kippur morning, but without their visiting cantor. He couldn't get down from Connecticut, because of the weather. Instead, the daylong prayers were led -- quite adequately, all agreed -- by local businessman Luis Dorfman, who chairs the ritual committee.

"The worst part was not drinking," said Dorfman. "We were sweating because the power was out and the air conditioners weren't running. Not eating was OK, but I could have died for a glass of water."

It could have been a lot worse. Beth Israel sits just one block from the Gulf of Mexico, a few short yards west of the hurricane's eye. Yet despite Georges' multibillion-dollar havoc, the shul was barely damaged -- just a cracked window and a waterlogged carpet.

It was the same for Jews all along the storm's path: grave fears, little damage. In hard-hit Mobile, Ala., an hour's drive east of Biloxi, both synagogues -- one Reform, one Conservative -- reported minimal damage and no disruption in High Holiday services. In New Orleans, an hour west, the storm delivered little more than heavy rain.

Even in Puerto Rico, battered in the storm's earlier, more violent phase, Jews escaped serious suffering. The island's two synagogues -- Spanish-speaking Conservative and English-speaking Reform -- reported only minimal damage. Shaare Zedek, the Conservative shul, had to cancel second-day Rosh Hashanah services when the storm hit, and a downed tree on the lawn will cost $10,000 to remove. Still, compared with the rest of the devastated island, "we were pretty lucky," said synagogue administrator Israel Zaidspiner.

Wherever the hurricane passed, Jewish congregations gathered to say prayers of thanksgiving. It had caused more than 400 deaths and at least $2 billion in damage. Jews were somehow spared. In numerous interviews, though, none spoke of miracles or divine intervention. They simply credited good luck.

To a New York journalist, accustomed to constant talk of sacredness by Northern Jews -- from the New Age left to the messianic right -- it's shocking to hear such laconic reactions in the heart of the Bible Belt. Why, one wonders, don't Gulf Coast Jews turn heavenward at a time like this?

Maybe we're not hearing them, said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly. "Give them credit for a deep sensitivity. These people are probably quite religious. But I don't believe people would talk about a miracle happening to them at the exclusion of their neighbors," he said. "My understanding of God isn't of a god that shines sunshine on my house and rains on my neighbor's.

"Look at the tremendous effort they made to hold services. That's where I see God. And in the fact that people will go far out of their way to help each other in the middle of a great disaster. That's where I see the hand of God."

That divine hand was all over the Gulf Coast during these Days of Awe. Every community in the storm's path reported getting phone calls at the height of the storm from the United Jewish Appeal, B'nai B'rith International and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, all offering financial or other assistance. In Mobile, local Jews were invited to wait out the storm in the homes of Jews in Montgomery, two hours north.

Jews in San Juan got the same offers. They made a few of their own, too. Shaare Zedek organized a "tzedakah squad" to gather food and medical supplies for the rest of the island. "The island was hit very hard," said congregation President Jack Goldikener. "The area which most of us live in had only light damage, thank God. So we had a squad that met daily to package the supplies. Our Young Judaeans brought it over to the Red Cross."

That's a divine hand many Jews have forgotten to notice, amid constant chatter about nonconventional weaponry, strategic depth and constitutional rights. It's the divine hand that reached out last year to Congregation B'nai Israel in Grand Forks, N.D. Its lower level was ruined in the savage Red River floods. Help poured in from 49 of the 50 states. "We received contributions from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox congregations all across the country," said Mark Siegel, president of the 65-member Reform congregation. "A service group from the Twin Cities brought 30 people by bus to help clean up." Even Catholic priests kicked in. In all, some $100,000 was donated. The rest of the $120,000 repair, Siegel said, will come from the UJA's national disaster relief fund.

This holiday season, that divine hand was visible even in hard-boiled New York. One of the city's best- known synagogues, the 126-year-old Central Synagogue, was gutted in a spectacular Aug. 28 fire caused by a careless construction worker. Rebuilding the landmark Reform temple will cost $20 million. It was neither bomb nor hurricane, but it felt just as devastating.

On Sept. 27, Central was visited by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He toured the charred shell and presented Rabbi Peter Rubinstein with a gold mezuzah. His purpose, congregants agreed, was simply to show the congregation it wasn't alone. "A congregation had been injured, and he was here representing the unique solidarity of the Jewish people," said Rubinstein.

It was a rare moment in Jewish life. Netanyahu and the Reform movement have been at each other's throats since his election. Each accuses the other of using religious pluralism to mask a political agenda. This time, everyone was on the same team. "There was a very positive feeling," said Reform movement leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie. "He was here as prime minister of the Jewish state, addressing a Jewish catastrophe."

Netanyahu had promised last spring that he would find an opportunity to visit a Reform synagogue sometime soon. It was a politically risky move, given the anti-Reform passions among some of his allies. Worshiping with a Reform congregation could threaten his coalition. Many doubted he would do it. But here he was.

It didn't escape notice, several Reform figures admitted, that Netanyahu managed to pick a Reform synagogue that had burned down. Classic Bibi, they said.

But, they said, they forgave him. It was that time of year.


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

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