A month after superstorm Sandy flooded the first floor of his family’s high-ranch home in Bellmore, L.I., Evan Marrow had not seen any insurance money — and contractors were demanding more than he could afford to lay out.
“I was driving home from work and pulling out my hair trying to figure out how I was going to get all the demolition work done,” he recalled. “And then a sign from God drove by me — a large van pulling a trailer that had a Jewish star. I pulled beside it and the trailer had the words ‘Nechama: Jewish Response to Disaster’ and a phone number.”
Marrow called the number and two days later a representative from Nechama came to look at his house.
“He came on a Friday afternoon, and on Tuesday he and four volunteers were there to do the job,” he said. “I worked with them and we had everything done in four-and-a-half hours. One of the volunteers was a 30-year-old man from Lower Manhattan who had an MBA and was out of work; two of the guys were from Washington State.”
This is the first time the Minnesota-based organization founded in 1996 has worked in New York. A national collective of nonprofit groups that provide services in the wake of natural disasters, Nechama has primarily worked in the Midwest and the Gulf Coast.
Kathy Rosenthal, vice president of Long Island regional operations for UJA-Federation of New York’s FEGS Health and Human Services System, said UJA-Federation is paying Nechama’s expenses while it cleans up 300 homes on the Island. That work is expected to last until mid-February.
She said FEGS is also set to begin distributing nearly $750,000 over the next six months to Long Island families hard hit by the storm. FEGS’ announcement comes as the U.S. House of Representatives adjourned Tuesday night without acting on a $60.4 billion Sandy disaster-relief bill. Republican critics of the bill said it was loaded with items unrelated to Sandy, including $150 million to rebuild fisheries in Alaska.
Long Island Republican Peter King called the failure to act indefensible, and Nita Lowey (D-Westchester, Rockland) said she felt betrayed.
A full aid package was approved last week by the Senate, but the House’s failure to act means consideration of the measure will have to start all over again after the new Congress is sworn in later this week.
Starbuck Ballner, operations and administrative coordinator of Nechama (Hebrew for “comfort”), said the “Salvation Army does the feeding, the Red Cross does the sheltering and we are a number of groups that provide direct services for the removal of debris, the gutting of homes and public spaces, providing tarps for damaged roofs, and we have chainsaws to remove fallen trees,” he said. The group’s two main locations in the wake of Sandy are Atlantic County, N.J., and Nassau County, Ballner said, adding that the group was also in the Rockaways for the last month.
Ballner said his organization has four full-time staff members here. They house, feed, train and equip volunteers from the local community as well as out-of-towners, who are housed at the volunteer fire station in Baldwin. He said the number of volunteers at any one time has been from 10 to 100, ranging in age from 13 to 75, and has come from throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Although some people were able to hire contractors right after the storm to gut their homes to prevent mold, many others did not.
“People are overwhelmed and don’t know where to go or who to go to,” Rosenthal observed. “There are reports of contractors gouging people, insurance money that has not arrived, people who are unsure of how much they will get from their insurance company and from FEMA — and just how to navigate the whole process,” she said. “So we are now hiring someone to be a project manager to help people.”
Arthur and Rita Oppenheim of South Amityville said they were cheated by a man who claimed he was a plumber and would install a new boiler in their flooded ranch home.
“He charged us $3,600 in cash up front and wanted another $3,600 upon completion of the job,” Rita Oppenheim recalled. “He worked for a couple of days, but the boiler didn’t work. When I asked to see his credentials, he left. We filed a police complaint. We still don’t know if the boiler will work.”
She said she learned about Nechama during a visit to the Freeport Recreation Center and that the group came and “removed the areas of potential mold. That was important to us because my husband is going to be 82 and has asthma; I’m 77.”
They are now living with one of the Nechama volunteers, a Christian from Smithtown, until their home is repaired.
“He said his God told him to adopt a little old Jewish couple,” she said.
Rosenthal said her office, which has a case manager assisting families and synagogues in Long Beach and the Five Towns, is “seeing a lot of trauma in older adults and children.” As a result, she said, it is in the process of hiring a social worker experienced in trauma and grief counseling to help those affected by the storm.
She said her office is also the Long Island distributor of $400,000 in emergency cash from UJA-Federation, $293,000 from the New York Times’ Neediest Cases Hurricane Relief Fund and $175,000 from the McCormick Foundation Newsday Charities. She said she has already disbursed $50,000 from the Robin Hood Foundation for emergency relief and other expenses, and that Robin Hood has just sent another $200,000 for use over the next six months.
Rosenthal pointed out that the Robin Hood Foundation, which received more than $50 million in donations from the “12/12/12” concert at Madison Square Garden, has funded five other agencies on Long Island, including the New York Legal Assistance Group (a UJA-Federation agency), Island Harvest and The Inn.
“We are funded to help people get their houses rebuilt by helping them navigate the process,” Rosenthal said. “People can come to us with requests for up to $2,000 to cover storm-related damage. If they need a new refrigerator and it is not covered by insurance, we will buy them one.”
She stressed that the money is allocated not to the homeowner but rather to those providing the goods or services. Most requests range from $1,000 to $2,000.
Another local group seeking Robin Hood funding is the Long Beach Jewish Community Assistance Project (JCAP), a newly created group of lay leaders and Long Beach rabbis who are trying to access resources for rebuilding the community after Sandy, according to Rabbi Chaim Wakslak, spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Long Beach.
His congregation recently hosted a five-hour radiothon with talk show host Zev Brenner that raised about $20,000 for JCAP, the rabbi said.
Rabbi Bennett Herman, spiritual leader of the only Reform congregation in Long Beach, Temple Emanu-el, said JCAP has brought him into a working relationship with the city’s predominantly Orthodox rabbis.
“I hope that out of this I can stay involved,” he said. “It may have taken a flood to get us together, but we are now.”
Although Rabbi Wakslak’s synagogue is just one block from the Atlantic Ocean, he said “miraculously there was not a drop of water in the building; everyone around us had damage.”
He said that with the help of a generator, his synagogue “never missed a minyan” and served hot kosher food to many in the community for three weeks after the storm.
“People also started sending us clothing, and the social hall filled with clothes, cleaning supplies and foodstuffs. We also became a central location for volunteers.”
The storm also punched holes in the eruv that had encircled Long Beach. Rabbi Wakslak said that with the use of a rented utility bucket that reached to lampposts on the beach side of the heavily damaged boardwalk, the eruv was re-attached two weeks ago — although it rerouted to cut out the heavily damaged canal area.
The eruv, an enclosure within which observant Jews are permitted to carry items on the Sabbath, came down Thursday when contractors for the city began taking down the lampposts as part of a $1.5 million demolision of the boardwalk. The job is expected to take a month and a new boardwalk is expected to be built by the summer at an estimated cost of $25 million.
The demolision came as a surpise to the rabbi, who said he had been assured the work would not start until Monday. As a result, there is no eruv this Shabbat.
Rabbi Wakslak said he plans to meet with city officials next week to discussing bringing ” the eruv north, and that would mean cutting out all the buildings next to the boardwalk. But we have no choice.”
The community mikveh or ritual bath was reopened for the first time last week. Located a block from the ocean, it was rendered inoperable by a large sinkhole that opened inside the building. A new foundation had to be built before the building could reopen, Rabbi Wakslak said.
Ballner of Nechama pointed out that volunteers “don’t have to be Jewish or skilled carpenters to volunteer. We will train volunteers who have the time and energy.”
One of those who was helped by Nechama in 2008 during a flood in Minnesota, Dan Hoeft, said he was so impressed that a Jewish organization “rolled into town one day to help, and there were no Jews there. They say they were there to help whoever needed help.”
He was so impressed that he joined the group as its operations manager.
“I’m not Jewish, but I am comfortable being with them because of their belief in tikkun olam [repair of the world],” he said. “That’s why so many Jews and non-Jews work with us because they agree with what we are doing, we have no hidden agendas.”
Homeowners in the affected areas and volunteers can contact them through their website, www.nechama.org.
“None of our services cost a single penny,” Ballner said. “We provide all the tools and equipment, and 90 percent of the work is done by volunteers.”
Nechama volunteers work on homes owned by Jews and non-Jews alike. Sally Jackson, who said she is a black Hebrew Christian from Freeport, called Nechama after learning about it from the Freeport mayor’s office.
Although her apartment building did not flood, she said her garage space did and that she had stored new furniture, photos and other personal belongings there because she was planning to move.
“Six of their volunteers came and cleaned it out because it was quite a mess,” she said. “They were fast and efficient and took it all to a dumpster. I almost fainted when they finished because you could eat off the floor. It was awesome.”