Tale of Two Jewish Towns on Shore

Lakewood Buzzes Back After Sandy, While Deal Stays in Dark

Storm Split: Sandy struck the entire Jersey Shore hard. But while one Jewish town is sputtering back to life, another still sits in the dark.
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Storm Split: Sandy struck the entire Jersey Shore hard. But while one Jewish town is sputtering back to life, another still sits in the dark.

By Seth Berkman

Published November 05, 2012, issue of November 16, 2012.
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Amid the widespread devastation on New Jersey’s Atlantic Ocean shore following Hurricane Sandy, there was a tale of two Jewish towns as they each marked the sabbath.

In Deal, a borough of about 1,000 residents — most of them upper income Syrian Jews — the streets were eerily quiet as the Sabbath approached. Neither the beachfront mansions nor the kosher restaurants on Route 71 had had electricity since the storm four days earlier.

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“It’s a ghost town,” said Ana Biton, who sought relief in the Synagogue of Deal because her power remained out. Early estimates had customers waiting more than a week for electricity to be restored.

Twenty miles south in Lakewood, life was vibrant but just as perilous for the close to 100,000 residents, a majority of them ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews. Power was coming back in patches; at Beth Medrash Govoha, one of the largest yeshivas in the world, electricity was on throughout the campus, and the sound of prayer reverberated through classrooms full of students. But two blocks away on Route 9, the main highway through town, stoplights were out and police were directing traffic, making driving dangerous at night.

The differences were products of the vagaries of the relief effort. But in Deal, few were taking their longer wait for relief stoically.

“We want to know why nothing is being done, and when we will see someone who can tell us anything,” said resident Lauren Dadoun, sitting in the Synagogue of Deal, one of the only buildings open in town, thanks to power provided from generators. More than 100 local residents had stopped in at various times since the storm to charge cell phones, tablets and other electronic devices, said Dadoun and others at the synagogue on the night of November 1. People came, too, they said, to regain the slightest sense of community, by talking with their neighbors.

Nearby, Dadoun ’s two-year-old son, Alexander, played with other children, while wearing an oversized pair of winter gloves. Dadoun said at night he needs a nebulizer; without power she was keeping him bundled up in blankets by a fireplace to keep warm in the unheated facility.

Looking at her son, Dadoun lamented, “Today it’s really cold. We’re not sleeping. We’re tired.”

Next door to the synagogue, kosher restaurants and markets were closed, their windows taped up and awnings missing after being blown off by the wind. Biton said she went to a Costco in a neighboring town and customers stood in line for hours to check out. Dadoun recalled how she saw a fist fight erupt over products in a Wegman’s.

When President Barack Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie surveyed nearby Shore towns on October 31, two days after Sandy reached the Shore, the polarizing politicians from opposite parties were praised nationally for their unity. Those huddled inside the Synagogue of Deal were less impressed.

“I want to see him handing out blankets, not flying over in a helicopter,” said Elizabeth Biton, Ana Biton’s daughter, of President Obama. Ana hoped the lack of electricity wouldn’t prevent her from casting her ballot on Election Day. “We want answers,” she said, voicing displeasure at the current administration. “We want to vote. Tuesday has to come.”

Elizabeth Biton’s gripes were focused on Christie. He had in recent days received widespread commendation across party lines. But in Deal, she felt let down by his performance. “Governor Christie promised New Jersey would be under control. We haven’t seen bupkis.”

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That same day in Lakewood, public schools remained cancelled, as they had been the entire week. But private yeshiva school students were being bused to classes only three days after the storm. At times, the conditions were dangerous. Aside from downed trees and power lines on the roads, buses were running after sundown, with the only light provided by oncoming cars’ headlights and road flares.

In Lakewood’s downtown hub on Clifton Avenue, on the southern end of the strip, Hispanic-owned bodegas and restaurants had power, while Jewish businesses, located just a few blocks north, largely did not. At His Place, a men’s clothing store, employee Michael Seltzer was frustrated not knowing when his power would return. “We have no idea what’s going on,” Seltzer said, as a few customers perused through racks of ties and suits in the dark. “Everything’s anecdotal.”

But the Lakewood Shop-Rite supermarket was fully operational on Friday, allowing many Jewish customers to buy food for Shabbos meals. Smaller kosher food markets were also operating, but on a limited scale. At Gelbstein’s bakery, down the street from His Place, loaves of challah hadn’t even been stocked in their normal baskets, as customers quickly grabbed two or three loaves at a time, off the same trays they had been delivered in.

At the Synagogue of Deal, no such frenzy was evident. Women and children bundled up in sweatshirts, gloves and scarves amid dropping temperatures outside and no heating inside. Families shared stories of seeing houses in the ocean and not being able to buy diapers, ice or gas. The last was of particular concern; with hundreds of gas stations unable to pump fuel, lines stretched for miles at the few stations in area.

Virtually every pharmacy and market was closed in town. To conserve gas, Ana Biton and others were coordinating carpool trips to stores in neighboring towns in search of supplies. The elder Biton added that she had not seen one police car or municipality officer stop by the synagogue or her house, and that the local power company, Jersey Central Power & Light, was “nowhere to be seen.” She also complained of a lack of response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and recalled, if somewhat faultily, how, after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, “everyone got involved.”

“I’m very disappointed,” she said. “This is disgusting.”

Contact Seth Berkman at berkman@forward.com


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