Struggling To Rebuild After Sandy

Many Shuls Lack the Resources To Make Crucial Repairs

Storm Damage: Anshe Chesed in Linden, N.J. suffered serious flooding damage during the weather events caused by Hurricane Sandy in October.
Chaim Vizel
Storm Damage: Anshe Chesed in Linden, N.J. suffered serious flooding damage during the weather events caused by Hurricane Sandy in October.

By Seth Berkman

Published December 06, 2012, issue of December 14, 2012.
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The center’s current building is about 75 years old. In addition to losing chairs and tables, the synagogue will need to replace a commercial oven, a refrigerator, a hot water heater and prayer books. Mason said that toys in classrooms were damaged and that walls, floors and the roof must be repaired. Her backyard playground area for her students, which she valued at $30,000, was completely destroyed. Mason found no help available from her insurance company.

“We didn’t have flood insurance, and they considered this to be flood damage,” Mason said. “They gave us $200 for the roof; woo-hoo, what’s that going to do? We pay the large fees year after year, and they can’t help us.”

Mason’s aging building also exemplified another trend: The list revealed a large number of repairs for older synagogues — nine of the buildings with an estimated $100,000 or more of damage are at least 50 years old. President Yehuda Loweff of the Jewish Center of Brighton Beach, which broke ground in 1928, reported that six feet of water had flooded into his building. The storm destroyed the center’s antiquated electrical system, which now has to be replaced to abide by modern-day coding laws. Loweff received varying estimates from contractors, the highest at $200,000, which he said was “higher than what we have available and what insurance would pay for.”

The disparities in repair estimates has caused headaches for other leaders, as well. Stacey Eager-Leavitt, president of South Baldwin Jewish Center, in Nassau County, was given estimates as low as $30,000 and as high as $140,000 for repairs to her congregation. “We can’t pick up the bills ourselves,” she said. “There is no place for us to go, sadly.”

Another aging congregation, the Stanton Street Shul, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, was awarded a $30,000 matching grant by the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Sacred Sites Program this spring, but has to raise $30,000 on its own before the grant is awarded. Two years ago, with funding from the David Berg Foundation, the conservancy launched the challenge grant program for historic synagogues in New York City, called the Jewish Heritage Fund. The synagogue will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2013, and parts of its infrastructure date back to the 1840s.

Esther Malka Boyarin, a member of the synagogue since the 1980s, said that the Stanton Street Shul is not a rich congregation. After the storm, the synagogue organized a Hanukkah party to raise money. It also held a benefit concert and an online campaign to collect donations.

“Things are a little off the beaten path here, [we run events] that are intellectual or fun, but we don’t have a wealthy crowd which comes to the synagogue,” she said.

Boyarin said the grant is essential for financial purposes, but also in preserving the Jewish heritage of the neighborhood. She added that the building has never had a boiler and that its ancient architecture was one of the draws for the Landmarks Conservancy.

“We have to be realistic and say we need to be able to support this,” she said. “This grant is extraordinarily important to us. The Landmarks Conservancy only gives three heritage grants a year. It’s now so rare that it’s precious, and needs to be saved to let people understand how immigrant life worked a century ago.

“That grant means everything. It means money, but it means recognition of a very important sort.”

Rabbi Josh Yuter of the Stanton Street Shul said there was pre-existing water damage in the building and that over the years, there had been a lack of maintenance. “We couldn’t really afford it,” he said.

“The roof is a huge concern, its stability, and it lets in more moisture, which wreaks havoc on the walls,” Yuter said. “It looks small, but it’s a lot of stuff you don’t really see.”

Jewish organizations have been deeply involved in the recovery process, but a majority of financial aid at the moment is being directed toward families. The Orthodox Union has donated $356,000 to a rabbi discretionary fund to help those affected by the storm. Judah Isaacs, the O.U.’s director of community engagement, said that “primarily the use of funds to date is to help individuals at this point.”


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