The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta had already been collecting supplies for the Carolinas, flooded by the recent Hurricane Florence, when it learned of the needs of the small Jewish community in Whiteville, N.C.
Former Federation executive Noah Levine contacted the Federation to tell it about a truck coming from Birmingham to Atlanta and headed to water-logged Whiteville. The town is between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach, among the most devastated areas.
“We had been planning the logistics when this opportunity came up,” said Yisrael Frenkel, Federation vice president of donor services, who is coordinating the effort.
The “opportunity” Frenkel mentions is the brainchild of Jennifer Kamin Kulbersh, who was born in Atlanta, grew up in Whiteville, and now lives in Birmingham with her husband and three young children. She and her sister, Heidi Kamin Enzor – who evacuated to Birmingham with her son as the storm approached – were talking about the needs of Whiteville, a town of about 5,600, with only four Jewish families left in what was once a relatively thriving Jewish community.
“It’s a struggle for a small town,” said Kulbersh, who works for her father’s ad specialty business in Dunwoody. Hurricane Matthew had hit Whiteville two years ago and it was just getting back on its feet when Florence hit. The downtown area once populated by Jewish merchants was totally flooded, with some buildings drowning in five feet of water.
A relative of Kulbersh’s step-father, Gary Kramer, still owns a downtown building in Whiteville. “We had 20 inches of rain in our building,” he said. Kramer, who recently moved to nearby Leland, which also was flooded, is still very connected to Whiteville. “My family lived there for 100 years. My grandfather came in 1917 and, after peddling in the area, opened up a dry goods store, which closed 10 years ago. I was the last one to leave.”
In 1959, when there were still about 20 Jewish families in town, they opened Beth Israel Center, otherwise known as the Temple. “I had the first bar mitzvah there and my nephew was the last. It’s still active,” said Kramer, who attends high holiday services there. On Rosh Hashanah, 22 people attended services. Unfortunately, they had to cancel Yom Kippur services because of the storm, but fortunately, the Temple itself was not damaged.
A few years ago, however, Kramer and the other remaining Jews in Whiteville – most older than 60 – worked with Atlanta-based Jewish Community Legacy Project to formulate a plan for the community’s eventual dissolution. “David Sarnat helped us with that,” said Kramer, referring to JCLP’s founder. Sarnat and Levine help Jewish communities in small towns with dwindling populations plan their legacies.
Kramer and his wife also evacuated to Birmingham as Hurricane Florence bore down on the area. “Our efforts are for those, mostly poorer people, who were displaced from their homes,” Kulbersh said. “Whiteville is surrounded by swamps and marshes.” Nearby towns in the devastated counties will also get contributions from the collection that Kulbersh and her sister will have trucked and distributed to the area.
Kulbersh and her husband are active in the Birmingham Jewish community: she with the Levite Jewish Community Center and he with The Birmingham Jewish Federation. One of their good friends works with trucking firms and donated the 18-wheeler that is expected to arrive in Atlanta Monday, Oct. 8. Material collected at the six Atlanta collection sites by Oct. 5 will be brought to a central location for sorting by high school volunteers on Sunday with the truck arriving in Atlanta the next day, see www.jewishatlanta.org/florence-relief/.
Kulbersh said Levine “has been instrumental in getting everyone to work together,” but she’s also effusive about everyone at the Federation. “Yisrael has been incredible. It’s been so mind-boggling to me how much the Atlanta Jewish community has been on board. They were all over it. I cannot say how impressed and thankful I am.”
The Federation has a decades-long history of offering assistance to communities devastated by natural disasters. So, it was practically instinctive for the organization to react when Hurricane Florence threatened the Carolinas with historic rain and flooding.
“Once we realized the severity of the storm and we realized how the Jewish and wider community would be impacted, we worked with people on the ground and the Jewish Federations of North America,” Frenkel said. “We have been running a supply collections drive,” he explained.
Six collection sites accepted donations of such items as cleaning products, diapers, toothbrushes, flashlights and water bottles. They included Congregation Or VeShalom, Jewish Family & Career Services, Temple Beth Tikvah, Temple Kehillat Chaim, Congregation B’nai Torah and Congregation Shearith Israel.
“This is in line with the [Federation’s] Front Porch principles,” Frenkel said. “We’re rising up to strengthen people in need. The Federation has always been there for people in need.”