Shelter from the Storm — Hurricanes and Holy Days I: The Eye of Irma and Backhand of Maria

I went to Church this morning. I needed it.
But more on that later.

I came very close to eating a pepperoni pizza the other day, for the first time since 1982.  But I will share that moment.. well, in my next post, perhaps.

One of my “rabbis” blares in the background of my mind – not on my iPhone, since I would not waste battery life on that right now, but in my head. Dylan, in his distinct voice: “’Come in’, she said, ‘I’ll give you… shelter from the storm.’”

Dateline: St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands,
One month and two days post-Irma; not quite three weeks after Maria.

Will the individual who decided to play Seals and Crofts on the radio as the winds from Irma began please identify themselves and apologize?  In this case, no, summer breeze definitely does not make me feel fine!

The devastation is enormous.  For pictures and descriptions, see my personal Facebook page. Even those following this story closely did not always have a full sense of what we have been and still are going through.  No internet still, no cell at first.  No power.  No power means, in a place largely dependent on cisterns in individual homes and apartments, no running water, with all that implies for basic hygiene.  (On our FB page there is a picture of our daughter drawing water from the cistern with a bucket and a rope.)  Getting gas for a car was a major accomplishment; cars are not just transportation but ways of cooling down, and recharging devices!  Generators are at a premium; fuel was hard to come by (but getting a little easier).  Almost everything is still done in cash; no internet meant no credit cards.  ATMs were running out of money.  A few days is one thing, but they are saying it will be months without power!

So many thoughts and feelings, as a slow road to recovery begins, and I just now have enough time to begin gathering thoughts, and enough signal to begin writing.  Each of these could be a column, a post, a discussion, a semester class by themselves.

  • The absence of pleasure is pain. The first moment, a few days after Irma, when I saw workers on the roads, clearing debris, trying to deal with downed wires, beginning the first steps to restore order my heart soared.  Our island, starting to heal!  But the opposite is true as well, and the reversal of expectation works negatively too.  If you tasted hope, and it is taken away, the bitterness is worse.  Cleanup and restoration began, things began to open after Irma.  But wait!  No!  That can’t be right.  Another one coming?  Two Category 5 hurricanes hitting – in less than two weeks?
  • To everyone who told me to digitize and move away from paper in the past ten years, I’d like a word with you! Yes, many of our papers got soaked (although not the important ones we stashed in sealed plastic containers in advance.)  But everything I put on the Cloud?  I can see, a month later, finally… that it is still there.  But… until now… it was useless!  No cell, no signal, still hardly any internet.  Power in a few places, but full restoration not days, not weeks, but months away!  Signals which we do have too weak to really download anything.  Four days before we even found enough of a signal to make a phone call to our two kids and our elderly parents back on the mainland!  (And we only found that when we saw a few dozen cars pulled off on the side of a road, with people poking at their devices and walking around – “can you hear me now?”)  And people were sending “link” and saying we should download files.  If we were lucky enough to be able to get off a text, there was certainly not enough strength, until recently, to handle an attachment or follow a link.
  • As the rabbi of the historic congregation here (the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas is the oldest synagogue in continuous use under the American flag – and the second oldest synagogue in the Western hemisphere) it was very, very important to many members here, and to me, that we continue our chain of unbroken Shabbat and holiday observances. That posed a very great challenge.  We came into town after a many hours-long journey on the Friday after Irma, and arrived at the synagogue around 5 PM.  We managed to get a text out to a few people, and held an impromptu service at 5:30 PM.  Rosh Hashanah was almost impossible: curfew prevented Erev Rosh HaShanah services from taking place at all, and then all plans for the next day were blown to second day by Maria.  Dangerous driving conditions in the dark limited our observance of Yom Kippur.  Power (the limited power in the center of town) went out again in the middle of Yom Kippur morning services, and the generator we made sure had fuel in the week in between the holidays nevertheless did not work.  Break Fast was early because of curfew (but wonderful because of a gastronomic angel who took it upon himself to fly down from New York with bagels and whitefish and salmon and rugelach).  But we did it: services continue.  The “streak” is preserved.
  • But then I remember the scene from that classic movie, The Frisco Kid, where Gene Wilder as a Polish Hasid en route to San Francisco in the days of the Wild West… chooses to save a Torah scroll thrown into the fire rather than the life of Harrison Ford (who, of course, survives anyway).  What if it really had been a threat to life and limb?  What if the 24-hour curfew had extended beyond the first day of Rosh Hashanah?   I am very proud of doing my part in maintaining that chain of continuous services.  But what if had ended on my watch?  What if it had had to break?  (On Yom Kippur morning we drove through standing water to get back to the synagogue!  Some cars stalled out.  I never went through anything I did not see a smaller car go through first, but still…) It’s a statistic, in a record book.  It’s important.  And it is less important.. .that safety, and health, and human life.
  • Another image inspired by popular culture – not a movie (at least at first) but a musical. I saw a serious question asked by hungry people: when is looting allowed?  Someday I will dive deep into Jewish law and texts about that.  But when I heard the question, all I could think about is Les Miserables.
  • My Erev Rosh HaShanah sermon – never given – was about parallels I see between island life and Israel. My goal was (and will be again soon) to deepen the ties of the Jewish community here to Israel.  A new connection I had not seen when I first wrote that sermon: the whole question of… like the song by Jimmy Durante, should I go or should I stay?  In the midst of the second intifada, I know there were those who chose to return to their homes, instead of completing scheduled studies in Israel.  And those who had been their classmates, those who remained to complete the year in Israel… that was a connection that was shattered, and never fully healed.   For all Israelis, there is a sense of being here, and being there, and it can be a conversation fraught with tension and unspoken accusation.  (Although is anything in Israel really unspoken?)   For us, here, there is movement once again, between these islands and the mainland.  Who is leaving, and who is staying?  I hope and I pray that we are in a community that is understanding and caring towards each other.  Different people will make different decisions; some have had enough and will relocate permanently, others have to do so because they have lost homes and jobs; others will need a break but return shortly; others stick it out.  Everyone is different, every situation is different, and, to the extent it is humanly possible to do so, we should all be more loving and less judgmental of the choices that others make.
  • I have seen those who have lost almost everything give half of what they have left to strangers. I have seen those with no running water for weeks smile and greet each other cheerfully.  I have seen doctors scrambling to open offices, rushing to the homes of people they barely know.  I have seen a hospital destroyed (literally destroyed – it will condemned and will not reopen and as of now there are no hospitals at all in the United States Virgin Islands)… and the army come in to pitch tents and work wonders and make sure some kind of medical service is still available. (Israeli help welcome too!)  I have seen volunteers in shelters and kitchens.   I have seen grit and resilience and resolve and kindness, creativity and flexibility and innovation.  I have seen a hard hit, and the first hints of rebirth.
  • I did not want to go through this, and there are movies I want to see, long showers I want to take, and luxuries I want to enjoy again.  I wish this had not happened, and I do not believe it all happened for a reason.  But people make meaning out of raw experience.  And in my own view, that… that is where God is to be found.  Not as the cause of the storm, nor as its choreographer.  God is not in the whirlwind   But, for me, God is there… as a partner and a friend, as we pick up the pieces, decide which road to travel now, respond to one another… and we decide what all of this will mean… in the next chapter of our lives.

So I went to church this morning.  It was the Dutch Reformed Church, also a historic congregation, just steps down the road from our synagogue.  Why?  I just… first I truly admire the work they are doing for the community: serving meals most weekday afternoons, gathering supplies, coordinating community efforts.

[I will share more another time about what we are bringing in for the community and for individuals in need, and about our own congregation’s Hurricane Irma Relief Effort.  For now I will say just two things.  First: through the generosity of the Jewish Federation of North America we have supplies and a hundred generators coming but somehow FEMA is holding things up and I cannot figure out why; the generators are needed, mostly spoken for…and more than a week overdue!  And secondly: those interested in seeing our needs and helping us, please do go to either our synagogue Facebook page (The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas), or, although it has been hard to get enough internet connection to update it, our synagogue webpage, at www.synagogue.vi.]

But mostly, after an amazing but improvised, limped-through, determined but dampened (pun unintended) High Holy Days, being spiritually lifted by my own community (see the film clip of the Havdalah after Ne’ilah, posted on Facebook), supported, impressed but also drained, in the middle of Sukkot…  I just needed a different spiritual shelter of some sort.  I needed to be with people again this morning, to hear singing again…  The theology was (very) different, of course, and the hymns Jewishly unsingable – not the melodies but the message.  But the sermon was deep, the voices were good, the spirit was warm.  Most importantly, the door was open, the friendship was real, the place was packed, and the sense of community was very present.  And I needed it.

This is a church with whom we have been in partnership for a long time.  We share an annual Thanksgiving service, and I believe the church met in our Sanctuary for a long time (over a year?) after the damage that they took from Hurricane Marilyn, 22 years ago.  We are close, physically and in overlapping missions and commitment to these islands.

I am grateful that the damage at the synagogue itself was limited, although it was significant.  We lost all of our machzors, most of our haggadot, some of our siddurim, cabinets and other furniture in the museum, extensive damage in both of our historic cemeteries.   We may have lost our keyboard and we have water pumps and perhaps a generator which need to be replaced.  We double-wrapped the scrolls during both storms (some of which were saved from the fire in our building in 1831!) but were taken by surprise by the Kol Nidrei night deluge.  We found a damp ark and ruined white mantels the morning of Yom Kippur.  One scroll was slightly wet; we believe it is not permanently damaged.  We have real damage and need support, but we know things could have been much worse. We must take care not to let there be long-lasting damage to the spirit of the place.

And we know that we can come back better than we were.  But we also know that our rebirth will depend on the return of visitors, six months or so down the road.  To an extent not true in many other places, our rebirth is, in part, in your hands.

With all that in my mind, and on my shoulders, I needed a larger connection.  This morning I found it, in the sanctuary down the street, in a church I needed to be at, doing great work at a hard time, a place of God, however differently perceived.

As for the pepperoni pizza I didn’t have…
Next time…  Maybe…

About the Author
Michael L. Feshbach serves as Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands -- the second oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He also was, most recently, Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and had previously served congregations in Buffalo, New York, Erie, Pennsylvania and Boca Raton, Florida. While in Erie, Rabbi Feshbach taught at Allegheny College and served as the summer rabbi for the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua, New York. Rabbi Feshbach is the author of several articles and book chapters. Born in Silver Spring, Maryland, he attended Haverford College and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he was ordained in 1989. He is married to Julie Novick. They live in St. Thomas, and have three children: Benjamin, Daniel and Talia.
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