The Kindness of Neighbors

After Sandy, Finding True Meaning of Community

Real Community: Paul Berger’s family returned home after Sandy to find neighbors had chopped wood to help keep them warm without heat or power.
paul berger
Real Community: Paul Berger’s family returned home after Sandy to find neighbors had chopped wood to help keep them warm without heat or power.

By Paul Berger

Published November 10, 2012, issue of November 16, 2012.
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Once the storm robbed our home of power and heat, my wife and I took cell phones and laptops to neighbors for charging. And our neighbors, in turn, began to stop by to see how we were and to drop off food. At night we huddled in front of our living room fireplace, eating popcorn and drinking hot chocolate, warmed by the burning of the wood I hauled in. We wrapped the children in several layers of clothes before putting them to bed under several more layers of bedclothes. Then we, too, hunkered down for the night.

During the day, if the house was too cold, we sought refuge at a function room in Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, where our daughter is a preschooler. There you can tell which people are still without power: They are the ones wearing extra layers of clothing, sitting close to wall sockets to charge laptops and cell phones. The synagogue opened its doors to anyone who needed someplace warm to spend the day or even the night, as well as to commuters unable to get to work. Before long, the religious school’s library became a Forward satellite office.

On the third evening in front of the fire, while the children slept, I offered my wife several options for the days ahead: with almost a full tank of gas, we could make a break for friends in Connecticut or we could brave the snarl of traffic squeezing into New York City and SEEK? shelter with our Brooklyn friends.

But my wife couldn’t bring herself to leave.

I’m still not sure if it was partly the nesting instinct or that the prospect of having to pack enough equipment for two young children seemed more daunting than braving another cold, candlelit night. But I do think that the knowledge that previous generations, including our own parents, grew up in houses without central heating also held us back. If they could do it, so could we.

As the temperature dropped through the 40s and into the 30s at night, our bedrooms simply became too cold. On the fourth day, we carried mattresses and the baby’s bassinet down to the carpeted basement, which was more insulated than the rest of the house, and slept in a row on the floor.

When the Forward’s publisher heard that we had been driven into our basement, he offered to rent a car and bring us to his home in Brooklyn. Other Forward staffers offered us spare bedrooms or a room with relatives or friends in New York and New Jersey.

To outsiders, it seemed like the last act of a desperate family, but the reality was that we had managed to hold out for so long because of the knowledge that so many friends and colleagues were willing to help us. And, more important, that if the going ever got too tough, we didn’t have to cross the George Washington Bridge —we only had to cross the road.

Contact Paul Berger at pdberger@forward.com or on Twitter @pdberger.


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