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. It is almost surreal to inhabit the world of another town while 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 make themselves available to their congregants in their time of need, and especially if there is an unusual event. Yet, a hurricane?
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.
Of course, 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 into Hilton Head, I suddenly realized that all our plans and anticipation for Yom Kippur were going up like dust in the wind during an Israeli Chamsin. Yes, I was concerned about our house and our congregants as 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 with other colleagues who were dealing with Hurricane Matthew as well, and I am totally grateful to the colleagues who took the time to reach out to me and offer assistance. I am also grateful to the CCAR, Dan Medwin in particular, who helped with providing technological advice to live stream our services in Augusta, GA.
The truth is that throughout the weekend I was not ready to admit that we would not be in Hilton Head for Yom Kippur. 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 Rabbi Rachael 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 to 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 Yom Kippur 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 tallit. 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 Yom Kippur. 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 from our congregants, and that was the most important thing. I received pictures of the trees falling down on my house. 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 remain optimistic.
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.
Wednesday morning: We went over to the Ramada Inn to conduct a small service. I promised the attendees that I would give them an abbreviated service from shacharit to Neilah in one hour. The seniors were grateful and appreciative. We talked about their feelings regarding being relocated. 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. Again these are not normal times. Something told me that I needed them more than they needed me.
Nor was this a normal Yom Kippur. We returned to Children of Israel in Augusta for 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 the congregation danced 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. I’m concerned like everyone else about my own house and the trees on our homes or on the ground. My mother always says, “This too shall pass.”
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 own bimah to show that life goes on and we as a community will rebuild brick and mortar, and our spirits too. This is what we do as rabbis in congregations. 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, Hilton Head but the entire low country needs hope and healing.
From strength to strength I have faith we will fashion a recovery of the material and the spiritual in which we will emerge a more united community in the long term.
Rabbi Brad L. Bloom, MSW DD, serves Congregation Beth Yam in Hilton Head, South Carolina.