For Nicki Salfer, the most nerve-wracking part of the 22-hour drive to escape Hurricane Irma was hoping she wouldn’t run out of gas.
Piloting a convoy of three vans filled with students from the Miami school her husband runs, Salfer had to stop four times as they raced to beat gridlocked traffic — and the monster storm barreling up from the Caribbean.
“The biggest fear for us was that we were going to get stuck on the road,” she said.
By Friday, they reached at least a temporary safe haven: an Orthodox synagogue in Atlanta that is taking in over 1,000 Jewish refugees from Sqouth Florida.
The flood of 250 storm-displaced families started arriving Thursday night at the homes of volunteers from Young Israel of Toco Hills and Congregation Beth Jacob, both within walking distance in the Toco Hills section of Atlanta.
“This community is unbelievable,” said Salfer, reached Friday in the parking lot of Beth Jacob, where she had arrived with students from the school for boys with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Asperger’s syndrome.
Roughly 700 miles north of Miami, Atlanta’s Orthodox community is the largest in the South outside of Florida. Early this week, as forecasters began to warn of Irma’s catastrophic potential, the rabbis of the two Orthodox congregations decided together to turn their neighborhood into a makeshift refugee camp for Jews looking for shelter from the storm.
“We know that people are going to need a place for Shabbos,” said Rabbi Ilan Feldman, spiritual leader of Beth Jacob. “They want to [pray], they want to have a shul, they want to have all the trappings of Orthodox daily ritual life.”
Feldman and Rabbi Adam Starr, the spiritual leader of Young Israel of Toco Hills, had spent the early part of the week in Houston assisting with disaster recovery efforts there. On the flight home from Houston, Starr said that he began receiving requests for shelter from Irma.
The synagogues posted one form for Floridians seeking a place to stay, and another form for members of the Jewish community in Toco Hills willing to offer space in their homes.
Requests began flowing in as soon as the forms went online. “They were coming in fast and furious,” Starr said.
Young Israel of Toco Hills is a relatively small congregation, with 215 families; Beth Jacob is larger, with over 500. “We’re basically bringing in a whole other congregation,” Starr said.
The rabbis had no trouble finding hosts for the stranded families. “We said there’s a need,” Starr said. “People understand that need. We put it out there — just a few messages. People responded.”
Volunteers from the synagogues sat up all night at Beth Jacob on Thursday connecting Floridian refugees with Toco Hills families offering rooms. Some locals have taken in three or more families.
The synagogues are serving meals from Thursday through Saturday. The Orthodox Union, an umbrella group for centrist Orthodox congregations, has committed $50,000 to cover catering costs and has helped source supplies, according to Yehuda Friedman, who is coordinating Irma relief efforts on behalf of the O.U.
So far, the two synagogues have scheduled communal meals through Sunday for the Irma refugees. Depending on the storm, the rabbis say they are ready to provide shelter as long as needed. “We’ll do this for the High Holidays if necessary,” Feldman said.
For the Floridians, the trip north was anything but easy.
Salfer fled Miami with three vans carrying 22 boys. The students were anxious, Salfer said, but were excited about the adventure.
They had to stop four times to refuel along the way, each time worrying if there would be gas at the next stop.
Locals have helped them with forgotten items. An Atlanta doctor filled a prescription for a student who had forgotten his medication.
Salfer said that she and her husband were worried about the school building they had left behind. “Everything has been boarded up,” she said.“We are very concerned. Concerned about flooding.”
Salfer said she doesn’t know what they will do next. Five of their students were able to fly home; the rest are with them, along with seven adults. “We may have to leave Sunday and go up north to New Jersey,” she said.
In the meantime, the synagogues have provided all her staff and students with places to stay. The boys are sleeping in a local yeshiva, where they have been given mattresses. On Saturday they plan to pray at Beth Jacob.
Feldman said he’s still working on his Shabbat sermon. “My sermon is changing every 20 minutes based on what I’m hearing,” he said. “One of the things I’m going to say is that we are all refugees. It’s not like there’s the haves and have-nots. We’re all refugees, meaning we’re all fleeing certain things… Gratitude is the order of the day.”
The rabbis both said they would squeeze the visitors into their Saturday services. “It’s out of control here,” Feldman said. “That’s the fun of it. We’re making this stuff up as we go along.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.