Toms River, N.J. — As New Jersey’s shore residents struggle to rebuild destroyed homes and lives after Hurricane Sandy, Rabbi Ellen S. Wolintz-Fields has seen a peculiar aspect of the crisis firsthand: Her tiny congregation has only grown in influence as the long-term impact of the storm’s destructive force deepens.
Wolintz-Fields, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel here, presides over one of many small Jewish communities that dot the shore. For years they have served as modest redoubts of communal and spiritual sustenance to a reliable core of congregants. But in the wake of the storm, Wolintz-Fields’s congregation, like others in the area, has seen attendance at services jump, along with levels of involvement in the synagogue’s life.
The 327-member congregation has furthermore formed new relationships with the larger community outside the synagogue’s walls, extending its reach beyond its small numbers in a new way.
“We opened up our synagogue for anyone in the community who didn’t have any heat or electricity, food or a warm space, or just [people who needed] to charge devices,” Wolintz-Fields said. “I honestly feel whoever needs the help at this point, we don’t care who we were taking care of. We just wanted to take care of people.”
B’nai Israel itself didn’t incur any flooding or structural damage during the storm, and retained electricity in the following days. Those fortunate circumstances, Wolintz-Fields said, allowed her synagogue to immediately set up a call center to provide updated relief information to affected families. Congregants quickly volunteered to travel door to door to check on elderly residents from the congregation and to update out-of-state family members on the condition of those stranded. B’nai Israel’s president, Philip Brilliant, said it was imperative that he know the condition of each of the congregation’s families. The severity of some families’ situations wasn’t revealed until those families showed up for services.
Brilliant said that at the first Friday night service after the storm, it was easy to tell which attendees did not have heat or even habitable homes. “They were all bundled up,” said Brilliant, who noticed both new faces and ones he hadn’t seen in a while. “After services, other congregants took them home, to warm homes with power. They know them maybe three days out of the year, but didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Brilliant, who didn’t have power in his own home for 16 days after the storm, said other congregants have also taken in non-Jews who have lost houses. “I would say there’s no line of religion in this situation,” he said. “Some they know from business relationships. Whether business, friendships, religion, it’s all blending in to help out.”