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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

At 4 p.m. on Monday, October 29, as Hurricane Sandy’s powerful wind gusts buffeted the trees surrounding our home, I Tweeted, half jokingly, that maybe 2012 was the wrong year to move to New Jersey.

One week later, with night-time temperatures plunging to 30 degrees, and still no power to heat or light our home, I can say with some confidence that there never was a wrong time to move to this particular part of the Garden State.

That’s because, despite all the fears my wife and I had of New Jersey suburbia as an uncaring and unfriendly place after almost a decade of living in community-minded Brooklyn, it is our new neighbors and our new community that are carrying us through.

In the past week we have been the beneficiaries of more acts of kindness in the township of South Orange than I could ever have dreamed of. Those without power have stopped by to check on how the new family with the young children — an almost 5-month-old and an almost 3-year-old — are doing, or to offer us firewood and a line from their generator. Those with power, whose own houses already overflowed with refugees from the dark and the cold, have brought over hot meals and baked goods. They have let us do laundry in their homes. They have even looked after our elder daughter while I took my wife — along with a sleeping baby — for a birthday meal. They have let us hang out in the warmth of their homes, and when the weather simply became too cold, they gave us a bed.

They barely know us; we moved to South Orange only a couple of months ago. Yet in the space of one week, homes and businesses that were little more than a backdrop to the place where I slept between commutes have become a community. Neighbors have been transformed into friends. And I have learned an object lesson about the real meaning of community.

I say this for fear of seeming crass when dozens have died and thousands have endured so much worse than we have.

Driving around South Orange and neighboring Maplewood in the days after the storm, it quickly became clear how lucky we have been. Enormous trees blocked roads, lolled against rooftops or lay among the debris of smashed garages and sheds. Power lines snaked down onto sidewalks, and wrecked roofs were stripped of shingles. Our cell phones relayed apocalyptic images of neighborhoods along the Jersey Shore and Long Island and in low-lying areas of New York City.

Indeed, in those early days our plight did not seem all that dire. But as it became clear that a few powerless days could stretch on for a week or longer, as gas became an increasingly precious commodity and as the temperature began to drop, what started out as an inconvenience quickly turned into a test of mettle.

Prior to the storm, we prepared by stocking up on food, filling the car with gas and buying several packs of firewood. We already had candles, flashlights and batteries.

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.