Atlanta Keeps Up Its Chessed After Irma Hits

NEW YORK -
Torah Day School of Atlanta opens its doors on Sunday, September 10, to south Florida evacuees. (Leslie Morris)

Amid fear over the effects of Hurricane Irma, the Jewish community of Atlanta, for nearly a week, has been playing host to well over 1,000 guests who had fled their homes in southern Florida. The massive effort, which started out as a handful of families opening their doors to friends, turned into a multifaceted operation with a command center manned by a crew of volunteers. Starting Monday, the grand hachnasas orchim campaign was complicated as Atlanta, itself, was hit by Irma, albeit after it had been downgraded to a tropical storm, leaving most of the community without electricity.

Yaakov Haller put his job as the CEO of a local non-profit organization on hold for a few days to help coordinate the efforts of the various subcommittees working to accommodate the many Floridian guests. He said that many of the Floridians taking refuge in Atlanta were trying to gather information and make the difficult decision as to whether to head back amid gridlocked roads, fuel shortages, and power outages on highways.

“Everybody is anxious to get home, but we are encouraging them to take their time and not to go until they feel comfortable that they can get home safely,” Mr. Haller told Hamodia. “From our end, it’s hard to let people go; it’s been a very special time and we all made very close bonds. We feel like we’re sending family home.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, some 60 percent of the guests were still availing themselves of Atlanta’s southern hospitality. Some of the many volunteers who have helped in the campaign were packing up food packages for those who were attempting to head back to Florida in what promised to be a long trip.

Since last week, Congregation Beth Jacob, Atlanta’s largest shul, has been the base of operations for much of the hospitality effort, providing meals for many of the guests. As the lights went out in Atlanta on Monday, the large amount of food that had been stored there was able to be salvaged by loading it onto a refrigerated truck donated for their use by a member of the community.

“It was quite a job to move everything to the truck but, baruch Hashem, everybody is pitching in and it got done,” said Mr. Haller.

Most homes were still without power on Tuesday afternoon and the storm had left many downed trees, but relatively little property damage.

Speaking to Hamodia in the midst of the storm on Monday, Rabbi Yitzchok Tendler, executive director of Beth Jacob, Atlanta’s largest shul, who was directing the hospitality effort, said Irma’s arrival had sent his team scrambling for ways to adjust to the fresh challenge.

“We’re racing against the sunlight here and figuring out how to work this,” said Rabbi Tendler. He said that his team was preparing pans of food that would be picked up or delivered to host families. “It’s very windy and raining, anything not tied down is blowing around, but it’s still drivable.”

Last week, as storm warnings for southern Florida became increasingly severeand the number of requests for lodging began to enter into the hundreds, community leaders in Atlanta realized that the process needed to be organized and coordinated. On Thursday, some 20 volunteers sat in Beth Jacob’s Heritage Hall armed with laptop computers and phones, working to appropriately match guests and hosts.

Organizers had initially planned for host families to provide meals to those staying with them, but as the operation burgeoned, they decided to provide mass meals during weekdays and the coming Shabbos in Heritage Hall. Meals are being organized partly by The Spicy Peach, a local kosher grocery and catering establishment. The Marcus JCC in the Dunwoody area has offered complimentary guest passes to the arrivals pouring in, offering use of their facilities and kosher café.

The experience of hosting so many Jews from other communities at one time was described as especially uplifting for hosts and guests alike.

“It was a very emotional and inspiring experience,” said Rabbi Tendler. “Over Shabbos, there was an incredible ruach, there was singing and divrei Torah from some of our guest Rabbanim. …This has brought together all types of Jews under one roof in unique circumstances.”

Dr. Ron Ezoory, an Atlanta dentist who was one of the many Atlantans hosting a Miami family, said about taking part in his community’s massive hachnasas orchim effort: “We are all enjoying this opportunity to be together with so many different types of Jews from different places; it’s been very motivating,” he told Hamodia, as storm winds were rattling his windows and had left his home without power. “Trees are swaying everywhere. I don’t feel that we’re in danger, but you can really hear the wind and rain; it’s much stronger than the storms we are used to here.”

An additional source of anxiety for Dr. Ezoory was his elderly parents who live in Hollywood, Florida. He had tried to convince them to come to Atlanta, but said that his parents had opted to “hunker down” at home.

“My mother is a Holocaust survivor and the idea of having to run away was too traumatic for her,” he said. “My father was a soldier in the Israeli army, so he’s used to digging in … They got provisions and boarded up the windows with aluminum sheets and my mother sat and said Tehillim as the boards shook in the wind.”

Many who had fled to Atlanta did so under difficult circumstances, some with special medical needs, yet another complication in the grand hosting effort. This coming Friday, Beth Jacob plans to host a bris for a baby that was born to a Miami couple during the ordeal.

“We’ll all celebrate their simchah together,” said Mr. Haller. “It’s very symbolic of the chessed that continues to go on here.”