When one is forced to abandon one’s home due to a hurricane or a natural disaster, it feels strange to walk around another community trying to be normal, engage in normal looking activities like eating in a restaurant, or engaging in normal pleasant conversation when seeing other evacuees from one’s congregation or community. It is almost surreal to inhabit the world of another town and all along one is thinking about what is going on in our community. What is happening to our house or the congregational facility we cherish? Congregational rabbis get geared up for being available to our congregants in their time of need especially if there is an unusual event. Yet, a hurricane? When did that come into pastoral care class at HUC-JIR?
For me this Yom Kippur was unusual to put it mildly. As a result of Hurricane Mathew, we in Hilton Head, SC had to leave our homes behind and find alternative accommodations in a short period of time. My congregants spread out throughout the region from Charlotte to Atlanta. Our family traveled first to Aiken and then settled down in Augusta, Ga. At first I happily ran into our congregant friends in Aiken but when we settled into the larger city of Augusta we felt we were on our own.
We kept in touch with congregants through social media. At first it was nice to see many pictures of folks enjoying themselves and touring the places they visited. We did that too. Yet, as Mathew rolled into the low country and Hilton Head, I started realize that all our plans and anticipation for Yom Kippur were going up like dust in the wind during a Israeli Humsin-desert wind storm. Yes I was concerned about our house and our congregants and I received many calls, emails and texts from congregants who were contending with all sorts of issues. I was grateful to receive calls from local and regional colleagues assuring us that there would be room for my congregants at their Yom Kippur services. I spoke to some colleagues who had experience with Hurricane Sandy and other colleagues who were dealing with Hurricane Mathew as well.
The truth is that throughout the weekend I was not ready to admit that we would not be in Hilton Head for YK. First I contacted our colleague Rabbi Shia at Children of Israel in Augusta for Shabbat Services. We had a great experience and were welcomed by him and the congregation. Even then I felt we would be able to return home. Saturday night we had dinner with our colleague Rachel Bregman and a few evacuees from Savannah. I started to feel optimistic again. The Hurricane, I wrongly believed, would veer off to the Atlantic and we would have a light brush of intense wind and rain and that would be the end of it. Not so. Man makes plans and God laughs, the Yiddish adage goes.
By Monday I could see that reports were that the hurricane would run over Hilton Head with a vengeance. Oh how it did. Rabbi Shia invited us to services and his president had us and some of our leadership over her house for dinner before Kol Nidrei. Shia invited me to sit on the bimah with him and deliver a few remarks. This was the first time I had not been on a bima as officiant for YK since I was ordained in 1984. I sat there for Kol Nidrei and spoke to the congregation. Shia provided me with an extra kittel and talit. He was the most gracious colleague one could ask for in this difficult time. A group of my congregants who evacuated to Augusta showed up and I felt that familiar surge of joy and happiness. I left with a good feeling even though I missed doing my thing as I would always do on YK. Sure, I missed all the congregants I have come to know and love. There was an emptiness in my heart,even though I was relieved no injuries had been reported and that was the most important thing. I received pictures of the trees falling down on my house with what appeared to be minor damage. The Temple was in good shape. I prayed to God on Kol Nidrei to give me the strength to keep my cool, my sense of humor and to keep my optimism.
Yom Kippur morning was a different story. A group of 200 folks from an independent living center in my community, Tide Pointe, were taken to a hotel in downtown Augusta. We have about 10 or so Jewish seniors there and so after meeting with them we decided to have a service for them. I then called and spoke to our colleague Dan Medwin at CCAR and he gave me a brief tutorial to hold a live streaming service where anyone in the temple could download or call in and participate in the service. What a cool way for all our congregants who were not able to attend services to join us and be part of the virtual community! Admittedly I am a bit behind the times on the use of this kind of technology, yet, what we will do for our congregants when the need is arises!
Wednesday morning: Got up and showered. We went over to the Ramada Inn to conduct a small service. I saw the folks all ready to go. i promised them that I would give them an abbreviated service from shacharit to Neilah in one hour. We did it. These seniors were grateful and appreciative. We had a nice conversation during the services. We talked about their feelings at being dislocated and how they were treated at the hotel. They spoke about the times they were living in and expressed real concern that their grandchildren were vulnerable to the kinds of political instability and economic chaos over the last six years they have witnessed and what they remembered from the Depression days. I could see in their eyes the outrage when we broached the subject of the elections. Just guess about that one.
I have to say that I enjoyed doing the service for them. Yes it was a real mitzvah and I know it was holy work. I felt good about it. Yet, it was with mixed emotions when I thought about what I would normally be doing. Again these are not normal times. Something told me that I needed them more than they needed me.
This was not a normal Yom Kippur. The next thing I knew I was driving back to Aiken to pick up emmi since the vet hospital closed midday. I was in the vet office watching emmi much improved but still weak. We returned to Augusta and let emmi rest with Dia. Yom Kippur diminished in my soul when I found myself driving midday to Kroger’s and Lowes to get the materials for food and shelter stuff before our return to Hilton Head on Thursday. Truly by 5:30pm I was still fasting and exhausted. One last push and we returned to Children of Israel in Augusta to finish Neilah. There we were sitting in the back row. Very weird for me to sit there instead of being on the bimah. The rabbi did a fine job and with joy and celebration and the congregation dancing in the sanctuary we ended the service and went to into the social hall for a break the fast meal.
The folks in this congregation were fantastic and I think we made some new friends. Many of them own property and have condos in Hilton Head. I hope they will come worship with us when they return. Some of me mourned not being on my bimah for the holy days. It was admittedly hard to get that loss out of my system. Yet maybe there were new lessons and I shall deliberate on them before writing further. I’m concerned like everyone else about my own house and the trees on them or on the ground. My mother always says, “This too shall pass.”
We will also see how emmi fares in the next week or so. God be with her either way it plays out in her health. Dr. Jay Jones was a great vet for us and his staff at the Ark vet hospital went above and beyond.
I am anxious to deal with the house issues and get the process of removal and clean up underway. I want to be there for my congregants and help them in any way I can. I want to be on my bimah to show that life goes on and we as a community will rebuild brick and mortar and our spirits too. This is what I do. This is how I feel. The truth is that I felt highs and lows helping my congregants this time and I know that the long term effects of this hurricane are yet to be felt. We as a community, not just at Beth Yam, but in the entire Hilton Head need hope and healing.
More to come