As an employee of the Union for Reform Judaism, I was fortunate to be given Election Day off from work. To me, this speaks to the value the URJ places on the importance of voting. I planned to exercise my right at the end of the day and take my 3-year-old son to the polls with me so he could see what being an American means.
I decided to spend the rest of my day off volunteering with my synagogue’s Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope has done a tremendous job galvanizing the community and organizing various relief efforts, including making meals for shelter residents, collecting and delivering essential items for communities in need, and donating funds to local charities.
I signed up to be on a bus to Far Rockaway, Queens, at 10:30 yesterday morning. When I got to the synagogue, we were told that we would be visiting elderly Russian-speaking residents of high-rise buildings. Many of these residents had refused to leave their apartments and were stuck on high floors without power or heat.
The volunteers were asked to deliver food, medicine, toiletries, and clothing to these residents and to try to convince them to evacuate. We were told that many were too afraid to go to an evacuation shelter.
I was all set to go when someone turned to me and asked if I wanted to join him on a trip to deliver supplies to residents of Coney Island. I hesitated for a moment. Quite frankly, I wanted to see, with my own eyes, the situation in the Rockaways. But he was a driver with no company, and I thought it was important to help him out, so I changed course and headed with him to Coney Island.
We caravaned with two other cars and made our way to the neighborhood most famous for its boardwalk, Nathan’s hot dogs, and the Cyclone rollercoaster. As we got closer to the shore, I noticed piles of sand that were far from their usual residence at the beach. The traffic lights were out, and there was garbage, furniture, and appliances everywhere. We drove to a housing project, just a block from the stadium where I had seen the minor-league Brooklyn Cyclones play baseball several times. I had never seen this part of Coney Island, even though I knew it was there.
We delivered clothes, batteries, food, blankets, diapers, and other sanitary products to four different sites. One was a FEMA site, another a National Guard site, one was run by the New York City Housing Authority, and the other was set up by a group of volunteers from Virginia who were distributing hot meals. Most of the people we met were grateful for the deliveries and were stockpiling supplies as they awaited another storm (which is supposed to hit today). One mother was looking for size-five diapers; others requested mouthwash. There were copious amounts of clothes, while milk was in short supply. It was fascinating to see how the goods went from point A to point B to point C – from the homes of my neighbors, to CBE, and then out to the residents of Coney Island. I was also amazed to see how many disparate organizations – both official and unofficial – seemingly worked together to provide for those in need.
My fellow volunteers and I discussed the prospect of getting this neighborhood, and others like it, back on track. It seemed insurmountable. I was unable to tell, though, how much the neighborhood was suffering because of the Hurricane and how much it had already been suffering before. I tried to understand why the Coney Island residents – like the elderly Russian-speaking folks in the Rockaways – didn’t evacuate from the beginning and why they stayed a week later, without heat or water. Were they unaware that there were evacuation shelters available to them? Were they too scared to go to a shelter? Or were they afraid to leave their homes to the whims of looters?
I didn’t find answers to these questions. And as this nor’easter brews in the distance, I worry for them.