Synagogues and other Jewish organizations across Atlanta are welcoming people fleeing northward to escape the worst of Hurricane Irma, a strong Category 4 storm expected to hit South Florida on Sunday morning, Sept. 10.
More than 1,000 Jews are expected to find food, shelter and Shabbat services this weekend with Atlanta congregations, many of which spent the past week providing relief to Hurricane Harvey victims in Texas and Louisiana.
At Congregation Beth Jacob in Toco Hills, volunteers gathered Thursday, Sept. 7, to assist South Florida Jews by matching them with host families in the heavily Orthodox community. In addition to housing families, Beth Jacob and Young Israel of Toco Hills will provide meals to ease the burden on hosts, who have the option of inviting visitors to Shabbat dinner.
The volunteers are using a shared computer document that is continually updated to pair guests with hosts.
“We have no way of knowing whether these individuals will show up but know at least two-thirds will and are grateful to be able to have come together,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Tendler, the executive director of Beth Jacob. “We have great volunteers who have stepped up and are not only matching families, but coordinating meals.”
Rabbi Tendler said the Orthodox Union has been instrumental in assisting with evacuees and donated a truckload of food from New York.
Around 20 volunteers are working around the clock to assist the roughly 250 displaced families and at least 900 people being helped by Beth Jacob and Young Israel this weekend.
“Our database keeps growing as voluntary evacuations are becoming mandatory evacuations,” said Yacov Heller, one of the volunteers.
“We want to be able to provide a safe haven for families while they ride out the storm, and I can’t think of anything more important than that,” Young Israel Rabbi Adam Starr said. “We would want the same help in return if we needed to leave, while knowing we would have a safe place to keep the Shabbat as well as kosher food, and if we want it for ourselves, we would want it for them as well.”
Rabbi Starr and his counterpart at Beth Jacob, Rabbi Ilan Feldman, spent the first part of the week in Houston, helping with demolition and cleanup, along with dozens of their congregants.
At Congregation Beth Tefillah in Sandy Springs, which a week ago organized a collection of a truckload of supplies for Houston hurricane victims, Rabbi Isser New said he started getting phone calls this week from Florida evacuees looking for a place for Shabbat after many Atlanta-area hotels became booked.
The Chabad of Atlanta congregation expects to host as many as 250 evacuees this weekend.
“There are literally no hotels open in Atlanta anymore,” Rabbi New said. “When people are in need like that, I think you have a responsibility to help your friend and help your neighbor.”
Many Beth Tefillah congregants have stepped up to host displaced families. Danielle Seligmann, for example, is connecting evacuees with host families using online forms, email and phone calls.
The synagogue is hosting a full weekend of Shabbat services, dinner and a community lunch for congregants and evacuees.
After being flooded with hundreds of phone calls from people fleeing Florida, the Chabad Israeli Center Atlanta in Chamblee organized a communal Friday night dinner for 300. Dozens of volunteers have pitched in to cook for hundreds of strangers.
Air mattresses have been set up in offices and classrooms to help the building serve as a makeshift hotel, said Kari Sadeh, the center’s director of programming, and arrangements have been made for dozens of families to sleep at neighboring houses.
Among them, the Marcus Jewish Community Center in Dunwoody has offered free guest passes to displaced Florida residents during their stay in Atlanta.
The Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies, of which Jewish Family & Career Services in Dunwoody is a member, is extending its offer of free counseling to victims of Hurricane Harvey to cover victims and evacuees of Irma. Those interested can call 469-461-1240 (note new number).
Members of Congregation B’nai Torah, Congregation Or Hadash, Congregation Shearith Israel and Congregation Etz Chaim are among other congregations that have offered to host evacuees, and looking ahead to the Irma aftermath, Temple Kol Emeth is offering free High Holiday tickets to evacuees.
Visit jewishatlanta.org/find-a-home for more information.
“Our synagogue has responded in tremendous numbers so far,” Etz Chaim Rabbi Daniel Dorsch said. “From my perspective, this is just the initial phase of what’s taking place. While there is an immediate need right now, we should look ahead to the repair phase of all of this. Once we can better assess, I think that’s when we as a community will take it to the next level even beyond just hosting.”
Atlanta is not out of danger from Irma, which could bring heavy rain and tropical-storm-strength winds to the metro area Monday, Sept. 11.