No Man (Or Woman) is an Island

by Barbara Lerman-Golomb

The year I was applying for college, the essay prompt for the application to the University of Pennsylvania was “No man is an island” by the poet, John Donne. I didn’t end up applying to U of P, mainly because to me, going away to college meant, leaving Philadelphia and attending a school in New England. Besides, I prefer free writing and the idea of expounding on a prompt felt too restricting.

I hadn’t thought much about that poetic line until Hurricane Sandy hit. Suddenly, I became acutely conscious of the fact that I live on an island. It’s one of the things I love most about New York and one of the many reasons I live here; we are surrounded by bodies of water. We are situated in a pocket of Brooklyn close to the East River, the Atlantic Ocean and a historic canal that has been vital throughout Brooklyn’s history to its commerce and growth.

All last week, friends and family were asking me if we were affected by the storm, and I told them that we were extremely fortunate. While some beautiful, majestic trees went down, we never lost power, and we didn’t experience any flooding. But many of the neighborhoods in the low-lying areas just a few blocks on either side of us have been severely affected. There has also been overwhelming damage to the beach and river areas we frequent, which thousands call home – Coney Island, the Rockaways, Montauk and our neighboring Red Hook “on the waterfront” of the East River with its feel of a New England fishing village. red Hook, with its artisans and small entrepreneurial businesses that were flooded out and may be unable to recover financially, with the Red Hook Houses, the largest public housing development in Brooklyn where its residents are still without electricity or heat, and with its shipping terminal warehouses built during the Civil War to store provisions – ironic in the midst of the neighborhood setting up collection stations for food, sundries and warm clothing and blankets.

While we personally experienced very minor inconveniences compared to the devastation that many are going through as a result of Hurricane Sandy, we’ve learned that without being directly affected by the storm, none of us is completely spared from the bigger ripple effect. As the days went by, I saw that we were affected in subtle ways. We were without mail for a week, which means a pause in my husband’s mail-dependent business; landlines were down; the internet was out at stores and also at some banks so they couldn’t receive deposits or dispense cash; groceries weren’t being delivered to markets because the bridges and tunnels were shut down; or, in some cases, their business was affected and they were unable to produce their product; our local Zipcar location (for car-sharing) had to move cars to higher ground, and the only cars available were ones with sufficient gasoline in the tank since gas is being rationed; basically everything we were scheduled to do in Brooklyn and Manhattan was cancelled because places were either flooded or they had no power and/or no heat; and of course, I was unable to get to my NYC office because even after some of the subway lines were restored, there were no trains to Brooklyn – certainly a reminder that we live on an island, separate from Manhattan.

Some reporters were calling what was happening in New York “A Tale of Two Cities,” with some people being severely impacted and others not experiencing anything. But the bigger reminder to me was that we’re always “two cities,” split between the haves and the have-nots. For us, life was temporarily interrupted – the things that make life livable were put on hold. But I am keenly cognizant of how fortunate I am: to have a bank account and to be able to get cash when I need it, to easily run out to buy things as basic as batteries and candles, to not be living from paycheck to paycheck, to not be dependent on EBT – food stamps – and social services, and have no other viable way to get food in an emergency, to not be suffering from a disability that would have made me even more vulnerable than usual, and to have a “white collar” job that I can do from home so I didn’t have to hassle with hours of waiting on line for the shuttle from Brooklyn to Manhattan (a temporary fix for the suspended subway service). And if we lost power or had been flooded out, I am reminded of how fortunate we are to have friends or family we could have stayed with or if need be, we could have checked into a hotel.

Of course, poverty and homelessness isn’t just a problem that cropped up last week, but it’s an everyday reality. Too many people have no place to turn on a daily basis. Like so many others, for years we’ve been donating to food collections, cooking meals and volunteering by sleeping over in houses of worship that serve as temporary shelters for people who are homeless. But when I dropped off coats, warm clothes and food this past week at a local collection site, it hit home that one of my neighbors could be walking around in our clothes, that this could make the difference between them being cold tonight or going to bed hungry. It felt more impactful than shipping provisions hundreds of miles away to another state or another country in a time of crisis. When a tragedy like this occurs, we become critically aware of the role social services play in our lives. We think we don’t need them – until we need them. Police officers, fire fighters, first responders, the National Guard, the Red Cross, FEMA, and neighbors: We become more mindful of how dependent on one another we all are and how it is an opportunity for us to step up to help one another. In other words, no man is an island. I guess I got a chance to write that college essay after all.

Barbara Lerman-Golomb is the Social Responsibility / Sustainability Consultant for Jewish Community Centers Association of North America and a member of the URJ’s Commission on Social Action and the URJ Eisner and Crane Lake Board. She is an author, educator and educational materials designer. Barbara and her husband, Johnny Golomb, were instrumental in founding URJ Camp Harlam Alumni International (CHAI). Barbara writes a blog, A Life in Many Small Parts.