More than 1,000 Florida evacuees fleeing Hurricane Irma took refuge with Atlanta synagogues, only to see the tropical storm catch up to them in the metro area Monday, Sept. 11.
Synagogues including Young Israel of Toco Hills, Congregation Beth Jacob in Toco Hills, Congregation Beth Tefillah in Sandy Springs, the Chabad Israeli Center Atlanta in Chamblee and Bukharan Congregation Beit Yitzhak in Norcross provided food and shelter for evacuees, including connecting some of them with host families.
But what began Friday, Sept. 8, as mass celebrations of Shabbat and fellowship became more complicated when Irma toppled trees throughout metro Atlanta, snapping electric lines and causing wide power outages Sept. 11.
“I think we are all just trying to cope right now as individuals from Florida are trying to get back home,” Beth Tefillah Chief Operations Officer Reuven Gartner said Tuesday, Sept. 12. “It could be days, or it could be weeks. We just don’t know when the power will turn back on and have yet to receive any news.”
Volunteers were working around the clock until Shabbat on Sept. 8 to provide families with meals and rearrange the Chabad of Atlanta synagogue for additional seating. Since the storm, operations have become increasingly difficult.
With the High Holidays starting next week, Gartner said Beth Tefillah is experiencing difficulties printing tickets and emailing information.
“We’re kind of stuck, but it’s also out of our control as we wait and hope and pray that the power comes back on,” Gartner said.
Aside from catering to guests from Florida, Gartner said he’s worried about next Shabbat: “It’s kind of scary because we won’t be able to hold services without power.”
Both Beth Jacob and Young Israel of Toco Hills continue to provide hospitality to evacuees despite losing power Monday. The congregations provided meals late last week and will continue to serve both lunch and dinner throughout the week.
Beth Jacob Executive Director Rabbi Yitzchok Tendler said a number of families have headed back to Florida or moved on to locations farther north.
“We’ve had a bit of a smaller crowd, but we will see how things continue to develop,” Rabbi Tendler said. Volunteers in the Toco Hills Orthodox community matched 900 people with hosts in Atlanta and made preparations for 300 more.
The congregations have maintained contact with the evacuees through email and several WhatsApp groups the community created.
“A few have come to state their goodbyes and expressed they were very moved by what this community did for then,” Rabbi Tendler said Tuesday.
A generator helped the Orthodox community keep working to help the evacuees, and Rabbi Tendler said Kosher Gourmet donated a refrigerator to prevent hundreds of pounds of food from spoiling.
“We’ve constantly had to assess the situation and change our strategy; however, we are working very quickly and doing our best to accommodate everyone, whether it is serving meals or adjusting the type of meal we are preparing,” Rabbi Tendler said. “It’s been a challenge, but we’ve had frequent meetings with representatives from the entire community, which has helped us accomplish a lot.”
Rabbi Tendler said a donation of food by The Temple reflected the wide community support for the evacuees.
Even more joyously, an evacuee gave birth to a boy while taking shelter in the community. The bris will be held the morning of Friday, Sept. 15, at Beth Jacob.
Two other women from Florida are expected to give birth this week.
The power outages spared Beit Yitzhak, which hosted 20 families from Florida, including Ashkenazi and Bukharan Jews.
The community rushed to accommodate everyone with a last-minute notice of incoming families Thursday.
“The food is never an issue within our community; however, working to make sure that everyone had a bed and a place to rest was important,” synagogue member Meir-Chai Iskhakov said Tuesday.
Iskhkaov said that although some of the evacuees have left, those who flew are struggling to find flights and might be here through another Shabbat. They are looking for people who live in the same vicinity to get rides with them.
“We are making sure that we are doing everything to make individuals comfortable and provide them with whatever they need,” Iskhakov said.
All together, the synagogue hosted about 50 people for services Saturday and provided a large communal dinner.
“It was nice to see everybody,” Iskhakov said. “We have Bukharans, Ashkenazis and Sephardis under one roof, and it’s times like these where everybody steps up, and just seeing that upfront and personal and being in the middle of that is truly special.”