Little Shul Makes Big Impact After Sandy

Jersey Shore Synagogue Plays Huge Role in Recovery Effort

Small Shul, Big Impact: Volunteers at Congregation B’nai Israel help pack clothing for distribution to families who lost everything in Sandy.
getty images
Small Shul, Big Impact: Volunteers at Congregation B’nai Israel help pack clothing for distribution to families who lost everything in Sandy.

By Seth Berkman

Published November 23, 2012, issue of November 30, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.”


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!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • 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
  • 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.