A Taste of a NY Trip for Thanksgiving

[Rabbi Uri Topolosky of Congregation Beth Israel, New Orleans, shares thoughts on his pre-Thanksgiving visit to New York.]

Dear Friends,

With your support and encouragement, I returned from New York today after visiting areas hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy. Here are some of my notes from the short trip:

Sunday, Nov 18, 6:00AM: Just made it through security at the New Orleans airport. I am sweating from all the layers I am wearing in preparation for a few very cold days in New York!

8:00AM: JetBlue shows live TV and I am watching the disturbing news out of Israel. The fighting in Gaza is intensifying. As I prepare to visit several NY Jewish communities devastated from Sandy, I realize the Jewish world is turning its focus to Israel right now, rather than to the hurricane recovery efforts. Part of my goal on this trip is to gather facts and contacts for a potential Rabbinic Mission to NY a month from now. But I am guessing that when I land my email Inbox will be filled with comments about a mission to Israel, not NY. It’s hard to be attentive to more than one cause at a time…

10:45AM: I am in Long Beach at the boardwalk. The last time I was here might have been when Dahlia and I took a romantic stroll here the morning after our wedding. But today, there is nothing romantic about the scene. The beach seems to have moved three blocks inland. The boardwalk has been obliterated. There is a car sticking straight up in the air, held that way by mounds of sand that moved with the 14 foot tidal surge that ruined this neighborhood. I didn’t realize it at first, but now I see that every car parked on the block with me has been totaled.

11:30AM: I bump into a group of high school students handing out bag lunches and coffee on a street corner. Turns out they were in New Orleans last week working with Habitat for Humanity.

12:00PM: Going door to door visiting with Dahlia’s old neighbors in Oceanside. They have all lost their cars and their ground floors. Most have electricity back, but their boilers are ruined so no one can sleep at home in the cold. A few days before, one person had bribed a garbageman with $50 to take all the trash from his curb – the truck was about to call it quits at the end of a full day after collecting from the house next door. Each story is heart wrenching. There are lots of hugs and tears.

4:00PM Visiting the Young Israel of Oceanside. They lost 3 Torahs in the floodwaters. The only usable part of this large synagogue where I have spent several Shabbatot with Dahlia is a small Beit Midrash on the third floor. I daven there Mincha and Maariv and speak to some of the community members, sending love from New Orleans.

10:00PM: After an exhausting day, I meet up with other colleagues and plan a joint effort for the next day – we will be going to Staten Island.

Monday, 6:45AM: After morning minyan in Riverdale, NY, I speak to the students of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School about our community in New Orleans and our own recovery story.

9:30AM: I head out to Staten Island with three colleagues to help clean out homes…

12:30PM: One homeowner jokes that our blue cleanup suits make us look like a nuclear response team. We are covered in muck and sludge from hauling the contents of his house out to the curb.

2:30PM: The air quality in the house we are cleaning out is making our heads spin. Our skin feels like it is burning. Time for some fresh air.

3:00PM: I stop by a home that has been moved off its foundation into the middle of the street. Two people died here the neighbor tells me.

5:30PM: I greet a U-haul that has just arrived from Canton, MA. It was driven by a young couple who had knocked on doors in their hometown to collect winter coats and blankets. We take them into a distribution center and sort the items along with pallets of food, cleaning supplies, baby stuff, and more that has arrived throughout the day from all over.

As we pull away, one volunteer at the center says to me, “Send our love to New Orleans. We know that at least you understand what we are going through.”

Tuesday, 9:11AM: My plane touches down back in New Orleans. It is good to be home and I am definitely feeling thankful for all I have.