You cannot imagine the fear.
If you weren’t here, it is impossible to comprehend. But I will try to give you a window into my nights and days as we met Hurricane Sandy head on and now try to make sense of a world turned upside down.
I’m on my way to give a lecture in Connecticut and the car radio fills the air with ominous talk about Frankenstorm. "All the news all the time" keeps warning me that a storm of the century is converging from many directions and it will hit some of the most populated areas of the U.S. all at once. What does this mean? I wonder apprehensively.
I observe the growing lines at gas stations and my stomach is filled with knots. I want to get home to my children and figure out what to do. My husband is out of the country and quite honestly, I do not relish facing Frankenstorm without him. My friend’s family lives a few blocks away and she graciously offers to have us move in. My husband and I decide that this is the best option. We had gone through hurricane Irene and thank God our community made it through with minimal damage but still, I feel relieved to sit this one out with friends.
We pack up some belongings and leave. I lock up and kiss the mezuzah wondering what the next few days will bring. I cannot help but whisper a silent prayer for our safe return.
A street nearby
We are welcomed into my friend's home with warm smiles and hot drinks. It is not always easy to give graciously, but they do. And sometimes it can also be difficult to receive. Our host family helps us feel instantly at home. There is no awkwardness or discomfort as we lay down our overnight luggage and take over the rooms of their house. Even the children, all teens, open their hearts and make us feel as if it is the most wonderful thing in the world to have two families live under one roof.
I did not know it then but I was about to be given my greatest lesson in the mitzvah of inviting guests into your home. My family and I have learned a lot and when this is over we will take away priceless teachings from the school of life.
We aren't sure exactly when Sandy is supposed to begin. It has been hard to sleep. Things seem so normal outside. We listen to the news and wait. Each report brings us closer to the dreaded moment of when the havoc will begin. Dire interviews with experts about what could happen adds to the pounding of my heart.
The wind begins to howl. I watch trees sway violently in all directions. We know that the direct hit is soon coming. We live on Long Island. The storm promises to send shocking waves and a surge of water to land. Only God knows what will be. We are being told that the destruction can be of biblical proportions. I am afraid. Though we do not live on the water, high tide is coming.
We hear that cars are floating away. Water is seeping into a house with a newborn.
I take out my book of Psalms and begin to pray. The children find their prayer books and we are all reaching out to God. We are astounded to read the Psalm of the day: "Save me God for water has come up to my soul!” cries King David. I feel incredibly connected. The voice of King David becomes my voice. I seek a lifeline and hold onto his timeless words.
The time of the surge has come. I hear the sound of ferocious wind. We gather together in one room. Texts from friends begin to reach us.
"An hour ago S was fine. She just texted me. There is 4 ft of water at her front door. Water is starting to pour into her garage. She can't get out. She is going up to her second floor with her family. She is hysterical"
"My car is suddenly covered with water. It is finished. I hear water coming up through my basement. It is reaching my hall. I am turning off my phone to conserve power. We are going upstairs. I love you all."
Fish on the pavement in Far Rockaway
We hear that cars are floating away. Water is seeping into a house with a newborn.
I receive a call on my cell from a relative. "My daughter just called. Her car is filled with water to the roof. Water is gushing up her floorboards from nowhere. They are taking the children upstairs. What will happen?"
I clutch my prayer book even tighter. The emotional words of King David leap out at me. “I lift my eyes onto the mountains, from where will come my help? My help will come from God who created the heaven and earth… Out of the depths I call to You, God!"
We hear that the water has reached the block before ours. It is coming.
I have never felt fear like this in my life. It is fear of the unknown. When will this stop? How high will the waters rise? Will the water come inside?
I want to shield my children. I want to build a lifetime of sweet memories.
I want to take each child's hand in mine and stand with them under the soft canopy of the chuppah together with my loved ones.
I want to giggle at bedtime stories and sing the Shema with my grandchildren cuddled on my lap.
I want to accomplish more and bring greater meaning to my days.
We anticipate. We dread. We pray. It is one of the longest nights I can remember.
I want to live.
The dark night is endless. We anticipate. We dread. We pray. It is one of the longest nights I can remember.
I think I see a soft glow in the distant sky. I ask myself, Is there still such a creation called 'sun' in this world?
The grey clouds overtake the sun. I wonder if the world will be normal today. What is normal anyway?
We open the door slowly. I imagine Noah venturing out and testing the ground after the flood. Can we go out again? What is waiting for us? Is there a world to stand on?
The street is covered with debris. Huge trees are toppled, jagged roots jut out from the earth, roads are blocked. There is no power or heat.
After the devastation
Peoples' lives here are shattered. Some stand outside their homes in a daze.
Basements are filled with dirty water, many up to their ceilings. Inside homes there are appliances floating around, furniture destroyed, irreplaceable photos of loved ones who have left this earth – all lost forever. A family I know has stood for hours in waist deep freezing water, trying to blindly rescue holy books that are submerged in their downstairs study. Their kitchen counter is now lined with the precious sefarim, pages left open, attempting to dry. It looks as if the books are gasping for air. We are forever the People of the Book.
I walk around and find people comparing their 'war stories.'
"We were evacuated by rescue boat from our windows in middle of the storm. We thought we were going to die…"
"We lost everything. A.C. units, boilers, washers, dryers, beds, furniture, wedding albums, all our clothing. We lost our garage and cars. We have no place."
"Water rushed into our house like the Titanic. The sound of gushing water – I will never forget it."
As I drive through the neighborhood and nearby community I cannot believe my eyes. Garages are left open, filled with mud. Entire contents of homes are spilled out onto lawns. Mattresses, dressers, children's toys, kitchen tables, garbage bags of clothing – all destroyed.
Some homes seem intact but I know that inside, the walls have been breached. How will we rebuild?
And then I see a group of men all walking in one direction. I realize that they have come to pray together in someone's home. More and more keep coming steadily.
I am witness here to raw, genuine faith, and to humankind at its best.
Despite the destruction, the loss, the fear, the lack of heat and electricity, our nation carries on. I am witness here to raw, genuine faith, and to humankind at its best. Those few who do have heat and electricity have invited others to move in. There are numerous families living together in one home. Hosts are sharing their food, rooms, and their privacy – all hard to come by right now. The incredible kindness happening here must stir the heavens above to have compassion on us.
Schools stay in touch through constant emails. We are told to please encourage our children to offer help cleaning the homes of young and old from water and debris.
Families have lost every bit of clothing and furniture. They are left with only the shirts on their backs. A group of teenaged girls decide to collect and sort through clothing for those who have none. Today, my son joined classmates in his yeshiva, studying Torah for a few hours without heat or electricity. Hundreds of younger boys will soon be starting school in various homes that have remained intact. My daughter's school has flooded badly. The damage is great and we do not yet know when the doors will open.
Right now there is a shortage of gasoline. We cannot drive too far; some have already run out of fuel while on the road. Word about restoration of power is discouraging. We are told that transformers are under water. Many are freezing. The nights especially are cold. There is word that some local kosher supermarkets will finally open tomorrow. Everyone is in a state of disbelief.
When God brought the flood waters onto earth in the days of Noah, the deluge was called in Hebrew a 'mabul' because it was 'belbal es hakol' – it confused everything. It transported the high to low and caused all things to float away. This has happened before our very eyes.
The Torah then relates that God caused a spirit to pass over the earth and the waters subsided. Our sages teach that this was a spirit of consolation and relief that passed before Him.
I pray that we, too, have reached the time when we can receive God's consolation and relief.