One of the most ironic words in the vocabulary of Jewish conversation is ‘achdus’, unity. During the entire history of the Biblical Commonwealth and the post Biblical commonwealth there were only 40 years of true internal peace. In today’s Jewish world, disunity is more commonplace than unity. Go to the Knesset cable TV station and be prepared to see the paradigm of interpersonal disrespect. How many Yeshivos have come into being in modern times where there has not been a break away yeshiva? In the jargon of the 70s we had ITRI and SPLITRI. More modern times have featured the wars of the Ponovitz and Chevron Yeshivos and the split in the ‘ahavat chinam’ institution Merkaz HaRav between Merkaz and Har HaMor. We have been witness to the public battles in the Hasidic courts of Satmar and Bobov as well. Today, the Jewish community is even unprecedentedly divided over its support for Israel during a time of war – this was unheard of in the past!
In this world of a fractured and faction-split Jewish community, our Young Israel of Woodmere community has always been an oasis in the desert – a rare place where we really are united. Not that we all agree on everything, of course! True unity isn’t some utopian vision where we never debate each other, but it’s a shared sense of purpose, a belief in the value and power of working together, and the belief that everyone is a valued part of the greater whole. This has always been our lived creed in Woodmere.
But SANDY has posed an unprecedented challenge for our otherwise united community. The quirks of nature and the fate of location, location, location, have created two groups in our community: 1. Those who were flooded 2. Those who were not flooded.
There are now two groups in our community, and as strong as we were before, we were not prepared for this. We were not prepared to become New Orleans overnight. We have no experience in dealing with a flood. We have never so many people in our community in need of so many sundry things. The loss of possessions, issues with FEMA, SBA Loans, flood insurance, letters of declination for those who had no flood insurance, hundreds of displaced families, frightened children, older people who simply cannot exert the physical energy needed in a cleanup, and much much more. At the same time, there are hundreds of families who suffered only from lost power for a longer or shorter period of time. But they were not displaced from their homes, have no bureaucratic insurance or financial aid matters to deal with, and have suffered limited or no loss of any of their belongings. Suddenly, our community is faced with two different groups with radically different sets of needs, and radically different experiences.
We are not strangers to loss and tragedy in this community – we have experienced tragic losses together in the past. And one of the things that people always say about this community is how much we take care of each other. When there is a loss, we mobilize our “troops,” and we take care of the needs of those who are suffering. Most of the difficulties faced in the past, however, have been localized to one family, or a small group of people, and the needs we had been tasked to fill abated over time. Here we are faced with a mass collective suffering, and with no time table on when there will stop being needs for us to fill.
A story is told about the Chafetz Chaim. One year, half of Radin burned down and those who were spared helped those who lost all. They rebuilt, and a little after the rebuilding was completed, the other half of Radin burned down. As the flames were burning in round 2, the Chafetz Chaim was heard saying, “Baruch Hashem. (Blessed is God). There was a decree from heaven that the entire city of Radin should burn down. But the Master of the World, in His kindness, divided the decree in two halves, so people can do chesed (acts of kindness) and help one another.” I think this story has deep resonance for our community. It does not mean, chas ve-sholom, that we expect there to be another hurricane that will finish off what Sandy didn’t manage to do. What it means, rather, is that there is a certain reality in the world. We never know what the future will bring. We may be lucky one day, and unlucky another day. Whenever we’re among the lucky ones, we must help the unlucky. We will never know when the situation might be reversed (in whatever way) and we will be the unlucky one in need of the help of the lucky. The message is: whenever there is a communal tragedy, we all need to help each other.
Many of my recent chizuk emails have been addressed to those who are directly coping with severe financial loss and damage to our homes, but this message is addressed to our entire community – to those who have suffered directly, to those who have suffered indirectly, and to those who have thank God been unaffected by the storm. The Radin Chafetz Chai story teaches us that everyone in a community MUST be sensitive about kindness when part of the community is suffering! Young Israel of Woodmere is no different than Radin. Because in truth, we are one community – we are a group of individuals and families, but we are also a united collective, and so there is really nobody in this community who has not been impacted by the hurricane.
Here are some of the ways that Sandy threatens to divide us, and what we can do about them:
BOTH GROUPS need to fight against both of these sets of emotions: If we were indirectly affected, we need to fight against compassion fatigue, and if we were directly affected, we need to fight against jealousy or anger. Those who were indirectly affected must remember how arbitrary Sandy was in her path of destruction – it could have easily been any of us who were hit, and any of us who were not hit. We are all living the old adage- “There but by the grace of G-d go I.” Being part of a community means we take this to heart, and we continue to help each other for as long as there is need, as would want our neighbors to do for us if we were the ones who had been hit by Sandy. For those who were directly hit, we cannot let emotions like jealousy or anger come between us and our neighbors. We need to realize that many people are doing everything they can behind the scenes, or more publicly, and that we don’t know how we ourselves would react if the tables were turned. Instead of being judgmental, we need to be grateful for every single act of kindness done, without taking anything for granted. We also can’t wait for people to come to offer help to us- some people might not even know where to begin to help. We need to make clear and explicit requests, to give people the opportunity to help us. Those who were affected by Sandy should also find it in their hearts to feel happy for those who were lucky enough to be spared, and to offer help to those who are even worse off than ourselves.
For Those of Us Not Directly Affected by Sandy (“Witnesses”):
It is impossible to truly understand what our devastated neighbors and friends are going through. The material losses from the flooding were only the beginning. Now in addition to the burden of rebuilding, flood victims are coping with profound loss of feelings of safety and security, with financial worry, with loss of routine, and with the experience of utter powerlessness. There is nearly nothing we can do to take away the immense difficulties our friends face. How can we help? A smile, a hug, a listening ear – these are the places to begin. And we must continue to offer these – however often, however repetitive, for however long. It continues to help.
When trying to be supportive or when offering advice, we must try to gauge whether what we’re about to say will be helpful or unhelpful. Instead of offering unsolicited advice, we should find out what sort of advice would be most needed and appreciated. We should let people know we really mean what we say when we’re offering support. We should listen carefully, and then follow through. As so many of us have already been doing, we must continue to help in very basic ways. A load of laundry, relief from a carpool so that a person hit by the hurricane can go to a crisis center meeting, an hour of babysitting (for business, or better yet for pleasure; we can be so helpful by encouraging our displaced friend to have a date with his/her spouse) a meal. Those of us who have professional skills that can be of use should continue to offer them.
Basic sensitivity is always important. We’re a community of “kibbitzers” – we often joke about things, and this is a helpful tool for getting through the best of times and the worst of times. But we need to remember that flippant remarks about the flood, the mess, the rebuilding process can be hurtful, even if meant as a joke. Some terms may be hurtful. Some people might not like to be called “SANDY victims”. They may think of themselves as people who had a setback but not as a victim! And of course, things that were very normal in the past – to share good financial news with friends, or to discuss the details of an upcoming lavish simcha – might now be very hurtful. So we all just need to be very careful here.
And most of all, a lesson for all of us to remember: In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, there is lots of help and support. But typically, a month or two later support drops off, frequently to lower than baseline levels. This is devastating for people who are uncomfortable asking for yet more help, and yet desperately need help. So let’s all keep it up. It cannot be minimized how hard it is to keep on helping, day after day, week after week. Those of us who were indirectly affected by the storm may feel “survivor’s guilt” and are suffering in countless ways that are not visible to those who lost their homes. We may feel guilty sharing this feeling with anyone else, because the obvious answer is -how can we complain? We’re so lucky! And yet at the same time, it’s hard to keep up all of this help day in and day out, for so long. We have generously opened our homes, shared our personal space and resources for so long. It’s incredibly hard to keep doing this, but it is critical to keep on going.
For People Directly Affected by Sandy :
What we are going through is so hard. And it makes us feel so much worse when the green eyed monster rears its ugly head. It is natural, of course. We are suffering, and there are others around us who seem to have it so much easier. They are witnesses to Sandy’s devastation. But they are not victims/ survivors. These thoughts raise all sorts of uncomfortable feelings. We feel guilty for being jealous. We feel resentful of those who can happily go about their business unburdened. We feel abandoned when people who offered support early on either didn’t follow through, or came through beautifully at the beginning but didn’t offer help again. We feel awkward and uncomfortable about needing so much help. It is especially difficult, for we are accustomed to giving rather than receiving. We feel shame and worry. We feel an intense need to appreciate what we have. Not just because it is helpful, but also because we fear Divine retribution for lack of appreciation. Loss makes us feel vulnerable in so many ways. This storm of negative feelings is confusing and painful.
Some of us may feel that others around us have been insensitive to the extent of the loss. Whether we feel that people told us that our damage is not as bad as we think it is. Or whether people suggested that God is testing us, and we need to pass the test, or whether we find that our friends are less sensitive to our needs now than they were a month ago. Or whether other things have been said that made us feel alone, hurt, or unacknowledged in our suffering. In all of these cases, we need to understand that people are well meaning. People don’t mean to be hurtful, and often don’t know what to say. They worry that saying nothing is inappropriate or not supportive. They don’t realize that sometimes there is little to say. A small gesture like a hug, or an acknowledgement that they are not privy to answers, or an offer of concrete help, is so much more powerful. Understanding doesn’t make the pain go away. But it does make it easier to take.
We also must be appreciative of people’s genuine kindness. We should remember to say “thank you.” We should accept people’s hospitality while at the same time respecting their home and their space. We should not be so absorbed in our predicament that we become oblivious to our responsibilities towards others as well! Take note of local community efforts like Achiezer, Community Assistance Fund, Nivneh, and YIW Sandy Relief Fund. Remember that the greater Jewish communities throughout the USA, Canada, and parts of Soth and Central America have contributed an incredible amount of money and goods and services to help our community.
Also, as hard as this is: We need to recognize that those whose homes remained intact are suffering too. Their suffering is less visible than ours. It is also less destabilizing and devastating, but it is real. We must find it in our hearts to ask the people who are helping us how they are coping with all of this as well.
For All of Us:
The most important thing is that we are committed to getting through thisTOGETHER, as one unified community. Whenever we recognize in ourselves an emotion that is dividing us from the rest of the community, or creating two groups, we must fight against it. And we must take action – financially, and in terms of offering our time and skills, to bring this community back to a place of more equality and unity.
We need to hold on to the knowledge that this difficult time will pass. The Midrash famously speaks of Shlomo Hamelech’s ring, engraved with the words that are appropriate for every occasion. Gam zeh yaavor- this too shall pass. When we are flying high, this keeps us humble. And when we are devastated, these words give us hope. There will be light. We must hold onto this as we usher in our season of light in the darkest days of the year.
General Aharon Yariv, the head of military intelligence for the IDF (‘AMA”N’) in the late 60’s and in the very earl 70s (but not at the time of the YK War) was once asked by the Chief of Staff of the IDF to prognosticate about the future. When he replied, “I do not know”, the Chief of Staff said, “if that is the case, why are you the head of military intelligence?” Yariv responded with a smile, “I do not know”
I do know that this community is amazing and admirable – all of us are so proud to be members of this community. Let’s keep doing all that we can to prove to ourselves and to the world that we are as strong and caring and united as ever before. I also know that in the end life will be normal again for everyone.
The Oisvorfer Ruv