Hurricane Wreaks Havoc Across Florida on Yom Kippur

By Sara Liss

Published October 01, 2004, issue of October 01, 2004.
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HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — God’s fury bore down on the hurricane coast of South Florida last weekend with uncanny timing. Hurricane Jeanne arrived with its 100-mile-per-hour winds just as Jewish worshippers in the region were reaching the climax of the prayers marking the Day of Judgment, Yom Kippur.For Jewish worshippers, the intersection of holiday and hurricane gave an added sense of urgency to what is normally a contemplative day of fasting, prayer and blowing the shofar, an ancient signal of alarm. This year, as Jews reflected on God’s power to determine who will die by fire and who by water in the coming year, the winds howled and the rains poured, leaving upwards of a quarter-million homes damaged and at least six Floridians dead.“We turned to God like we never turned before,” said Rabbi Ivan Watchman of Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach, a Conservative synagogue in Broward County. “We realize these storms are like those in the Bible — that God is telling us how to live, that we should be a more caring society.”Struggling with the storm’s destructive power, Watchman tried to see a positive side to the region’s agony. “It has created a bond between neighbors in crisis,” he said. “It’s creating a more compassionate society, teaching us not to take things for granted.”In addition to the grander theological issues, the hurricane created a host of logistical problems for synagogues. Many rabbis faced the difficult decision of canceling or telescoping Yom Kippur services in order to have congregants home before the storm struck late on Saturday. Other congregations plunged ahead with services, accepting the loss of electricity and hoping that nothing more catastrophic would follow. One synagogue had its roof ripped off.In all, some 2,430 people were killed by Hurricane Jeanne, most of them in Haiti. It was the fourth major hurricane to strike the region in six weeks, the worst hurricane season in 125 years.Floridians managed to find creative ways to get through the full day of prayers that traditionally mark Yom Kippur, the most sacred day on the Jewish calendar. Many rushed through the entire day’s service without the traditional midday break, finishing hours ahead of schedule. Some stayed through the gathering storm, huddled around memorial candles to illuminate their prayer books.Chabad House Lubavitch of Palm Beach was one of the hardest-hit congregations. “We got the wall of the eye of the storm. Half of our roof got blown off,” said the congregation’s religious leader, Rabbi Shlomo Ezagui. Making matters worse, he said, the synagogue has no hurricane insurance. Still, the rabbi tried to maintain his sense of humor. Alluding to the upcoming Sukkot holiday, which religious Jews celebrate by building booths open to the sky, he joked: “According to Jewish law, there are rules about building a sukkah. This year we don’t have to build one. We have one made by God.”Ezagui described how, as skies darkened and winds rose, the synagogue’s leadership decided to continue services after consulting with the congregation.“Our thoughts were, ‘It’s Yom Kippur, there’s nowhere to run, and we’re in a shul and this should be the most protected place to be,’” Ezagui recalled. When it was time for the closing Ne’ila service at sundown, Ezagui’s congregation had dwindled from 150 people to only eight.“We had lit candles before Yom Kippur,” he said. “So for Ne’ila we had 20 yahrzeit candles for light. We huddled in the dark, we blew the shofar, and we ate a break-fast that was prepared for 200.”On the day before the storm, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation sent out a mass e-mail advisory informing observant Jews in the region that they had rabbinic dispensation to keep informed about the coming hurricane by listening to broadcast media, normally forbidden on the holy day.“Rabbinic authorities have suggested that a battery-operated radio or television be turned on prior to the holiday and continue to be monitored throughout the holiday,” the advisory stated. “The Jewish religion stresses that health and safety are paramount and that rules of holiday observance are set aside when one’s life is in danger. The statement also was posted on the federation’s Web site and featured on its voice-mail message.The rabbinic dispensation, however, did little to help Young Israel of Hollywood. The Orthodox congregation in South Broward had to negotiate not only the storm, but also the rules of a nearby country club that was hosting the synagogue’s auxiliary High Holy Day services. Because of the storm, the country club decided to close its facilities early in the day, forcing worshippers at both services to squeeze into the synagogue’s main building. The congregation decided to conduct services without the traditional midday break so that they could end several hours early and send congregants home at 4 p.m.“We were lucky in the sense that we did not a have a full-fledged hurricane coming toward us,” said Rabbi Edward Davis of Young Israel. Recalling a devastating 1992 storm, Davis added, “a lot of us were here at Hurricane Andrew, and your anxiety level goes very high.”Farther south and away from the storm’s center, but closer to the coastline, Rabbi Gary Glickstein of Temple Beth Sholom, a Reform synagogue in Miami Beach, estimated that one-fourth of his usual 2,000 Yom Kippur congregants did not show up for services. Responding to congregants’ concerns, he decided to end services early in the afternoon.Glickstein was philosophical about the barrage of natural disasters that has struck his region in the last six weeks. “We in South Florida have dealt with hurricanes before,” he told the Forward. “We are good at crisis and pulling together.” The atmosphere during services seemed “more subdued than usual, quieter,” he said. “People were more serious and more contemplative. People were trying to make the right decision for their families.”Florida’s near-biblical troubles have given rise to some dark humor around the country, including a map circulating on the Internet that appears to show the hurricanes following a path that overlaps the counties voting Republican in 2000 — proof, liberal wags say, that the storms are divine retribution for those hanging chads.Glickstein said the jokes had been repeated by a few congregants, but most weren’t finding much humor in them.“I’ve heard jokes that this is punishment for 2000, for how we voted as a state,” he said, “but I don’t know how seriously people take that. It’s part of nature and there must be some positive aspect to it.”

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