Jewish Groups Spring Into Action To Offer Help to Nashville Flood Victims

By Allison Gaudet Yarrow

Published May 12, 2010, issue of May 21, 2010.
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Trent Rosenbloom returned from a trip to find his family’s Nashville, Tenn., home in ruins, many of his beloved possessions washed away and his minivan totaled.

Extensive Flooding: Mudslides, precipitated by heavy rains in the Nashville area, ruined the home of Trent Rosenbloom. His fam- ily was one of 40 in the city’s small Jewish community to suffer catastrophic damages in the flooding.
John Ramsey, Trent Rosenbloom;
Extensive Flooding: Mudslides, precipitated by heavy rains in the Nashville area, ruined the home of Trent Rosenbloom. His fam- ily was one of 40 in the city’s small Jewish community to suffer catastrophic damages in the flooding.

Rosenbloom is a Vanderbilt University research physician who was born in Nashville and moved back in 1992. He contacted insurance adjusters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and structural engineers about the damage to his home in the hard-hit Bellevue neighborhood. A series of storms, which began on May 1 and caused the flooding, has claimed more than 30 lives, left thousands homeless and caused an estimated $1.6 billion in damages.

“The big stress is not knowing if the house is salvageable, not knowing where the money’s coming from to scrap it and build new,” he said.

The Rosenblooms, who belong to a Conservative synagogue in Nashville, are among the city’s 40 Jewish families whose homes are uninhabitable as a result of the recent floods. No injuries or loss of life have been reported in the Jewish community.

The Nashville area is home to about 600,000 people. The most recent population study, conducted by the local Jewish federation back in 2002, put the city’s Jewish population at 8,000. Historian Stuart Rockoff asserts that Nashville has surpassed Memphis as the Tennessee city with the largest Jewish community.

After the flood, the local Jewish Family Service sprung into action. The first thing that the director, Pam Kelner, did was call the director of JFS in New Orleans, which was battered by Hurricane Katrina five years ago. “[We] wanted to find out what they did and adopt the best practices rather than spending a day or two figuring out what to do,” she said.

JFS of Nashville decided to award stipends to displaced Jewish residents. Four days after the flooding began, they started cutting checks — $700 a person — for immediate needs, such as clothing, food and shelter. As of press time, nearly $40,000 had been given out to 57 people.

The Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee raised these funds, primarily through its website. The federation’s executive director, Steve Edelstein, said he was touched to receive several donations from members of the Jewish community of New Orleans. The Nashville Federation is considering a loan program to aid those in need.

The Jewish disaster-response organization Nechama, which means “comfort” in Hebrew, expects to deploy volunteers to clean water-damaged homes of the elderly and infirm in the coming days. The organization’s executive director, Jim Stein, said that many people didn’t realize that most possessions that survive water disasters must be thrown out because the mold they can breed is dangerous. “It’s heartbreaking; you literally see people’s lives sitting on the curb,” he said.

Despite these valiant efforts, many living in and around Nashville said they feel that the catastrophic flooding has been overshadowed by other news. Heavy rains in the region coincided with the attempted bombing in New York City’s Times Square and with the massive oil spill in the Gulf. A YouTube video that has made the rounds with nearly 800,000 viewings features images of the flooded city scrolling by to the tune of the Beatles song “Here Comes the Sun.” Its message seems to be that even if the country isn’t watching, Nashville is aiming to put itself back together again.

This mantra runs deep in Nashville’s tightly knit Jewish community. The Gordon Jewish Community Center became a Red Cross shelter in the early stages of the flood, housing more than 500 victims — few, if any, were Jewish — and distributing food and supplies.

“Nobody understands how bad it is. Nashville is really hurting,” said Barbara Mayden, a lawyer who moved there from New York City in 1995. Her house was relatively unscathed, but she did photograph whitecaps in her backyard from the overflowing neighborhood creeks.

The disaster has unleashed an outpouring of support from those who want to help. Rosenbloom, his wife and their three young children are living in the second home of Rabbi Saul Strosberg, which the rabbi took off the market for that purpose. Another member of the Jewish community is staying in Strosberg’s spare bedroom, and a call to assist one of Strosberg’s elderly congregants with cleanup turned out more than a dozen volunteers, some of whom had incurred losses themselves.

Four of Nashville’s five synagogues, including the historic Congregation Ohabai Sholom, which dates back to 1851, took in water. Only the Orthodox congregation Sherith Israel, led by Strosberg, was unharmed.

Contact Allison Gaudet Yarrow at yarrow@forward.com


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