Tropical Depression Ida battered New Jersey, with the state reporting 23 deaths amidst flash floods, pounding rain, forceful winds, and even three tornadoes, one so powerful debris was hurled four miles into the air. In some towns, entire homes were flattened and highways flooded.
Amidst the frightening weather and warnings to stay somewhere safe, Jewish volunteers headed out in the brutal storm to help those in need of rescue.
In Elizabeth, two Hatzolah members found an unconventional way to rescue trapped residents: by kayak. Yehuda Greenberg and Avrumi Safronowitz, two cousins, were safe inside their respective homes when Greenberg’s wife, Faigy, alerted them to reports of people trapped.
“She saw on the community chat that people were stranded in the floodwaters, and I have kayaks, so my cousin and I decided to take them out and we went to grab as many people as we could,” said Greenberg.
Both cousins work in Hatzolah, with Safronowitz as a driver and Greenberg as an EMT. Greenberg additionally volunteers with New Jersey search-and-rescue, and both were equipped to deal with situations like the one they were paddling into, even though they were acting in a personal capacity.
When they went out and managed to rescue the Jewish woman whose car had been disabled, an older man who injured himself and was sheltering on high steps noticed them and called for help. They brought the woman to a safe place and then the two managed to paddle back to the man, who had a wound on his leg, to a safe area where he could get into an ambulance.
Soon enough, for the next four hours, the cousins had a system.
“Someone pulled us over or floated us over, and we’d call 911 for them and talk to the dispatcher and get them somewhere to rendezvous…and get them to dry land,” said Greenberg. “Cars had floated away and a whole bunch of people needed help.”
They didn’t realize how dangerous the situation was until later on. Though the water was chest level, potholes were shifting underneath them, creating areas that a person could sink through.
“We actually saw some people walking in the street who disappeared,” said Safronowitz. “As they were walking, they would step into the pothole and you would see them jumping up, gasping for breath…We only found out later. We weren’t really so concerned about [danger] at first, but as we saw that we got more concerned.”
They left around 11 p.m. and came back at 2:30 a.m., having rescued seven people. Many of them had gone to strangers’ homes for shelter when the streets began to flood, only to be trapped when the water around the homes began to rise.
“People in the shopping area saw us,” shared Safronowitz. “All these elderly people were saying, ‘can you take us?’”
Shortly before midnight on Tuesday, the building of Yeshiva Ohr Simcha of Englewood began to flood. The door gave way and water rushed in so fast that the teenage boys and the adult advisor were unable to escape through the windows or by climbing to the roof of the one-story building. Two and a half feet of water reached their waists and their frantic calls to 911 weren’t going through. To add to the danger, the transformers in the building made the entire place at risk for a life threatening electrical accident.
Rebbitzen Gila Butrimovitz, wife of menahel Rabbi Elchonon Butrimovitz, realized 911 was so overburdened that help would take too long to arrive, and she began to reach out to as many people involved in chessed work as possible.
The midnight message to the chessed organization chat was urgent: “SIXTY BOCHURIM TRAPPED IN FLOODED YESHIVA. IMMINENT DANGER. TRANSFORMERS ON SITE.”
More than 200 people in the chat, volunteers and professionals, jumped to the task. Members of Kiryat Yoel Chaverim, Bergen Hatzolah, and Teaneck volunteers headed out, and others began to repeatedly call emergency services and local elected officials.
Even a member of Monroe Chaverim nearby came out to help.
One woman, even as she began coordinating rescue efforts, realized that one of the trapped boys was her son. Suddenly, the reason his phone suddenly lost connection when they were talking earlier was frighteningly clear.
Rabbi Elchanan and Rebbitzen Gila Butrimovitz were in touch with the adult who was with the boys. Rabbi Menachem Strassfeld, the Sgan Menahel, kept everyone calm as they waited for help and kept everyone updated on what was happening on the scene.
Shoshana Bernstein coordinated the efforts and conference calls to keep the boys, yeshiva staff, and rescuers in touch, and she praised Rabbi Strassfeld for his poise under pressure, even as the power was turned off and their cellphones began to die, leaving them alone in the dark.
“He was amazing. He was incredibly calm, incredibly in control” in keeping the boys calm and ready to leave with a change of clothes and their tefillin.
Eventually enough calls stressing the urgency of the situation convinced emergency services to arrive, which they did around 1 a.m. But the boat they had was too small for the sixty boys. Chaveirim helped line and clear the street and by 1:20 a.m., police and fire officers brought boats large enough to evacuate all the boys. But their troubles weren’t over.
Evacuating them was extremely dangerous, as manhole covers throughout the street had been forced open by the pressure of the flash floods and were bursting. Pressure from the manholes were creating riptides, pushing and dragging boats in all directions. Unable to get them to a hotel or another place to stay, the boats deposited the boys at a nearby, dry shul, where they spent the night. Chessed 24/7 brought them food after a message was sent out at 1 a.m.
Chasdei Hashem, there were no injuries and the sifrei Torah were safe, though the building sustained extensive damage. The yeshiva has opened a Chesed fund for assistance in finding a new space.
“This is what people do,” said Bernstein. “They just jump in, get it done, and move on. It was an amazing example of when Klal Yisrael’s needs to get something done, it just happens,” she said. “No was going to say, sit there and wait. That wasn’t going to happen. We’re getting those boys out, and we’re making sure they’re safe. That’s it. Whatever they need. Absolutely, Mi Ki Amcha Yisrael.”
Updated Thursday, September 2, 2021 at 10:08 pm .
Updated Thursday, September 2, 2021 at 10:22 pm .