A few hours after Shabbat services one Friday night in October of 1998, the heavens over Tegucigalpa opened up. Hurricane Mitch struck Honduras, killing some 7,000 people in the country and flooding the capital. The city’s synagogue, one and a half blocks from the Choluteca River was inundated with water; the roof collapsed and walls buckled; one Torah scroll was carried away by the torrent.
The next afternoon congregants surveyed the damage. They began digging through the mud; they conducted Friday night services the next week in a member’s business office; and Philip Gelman, the congregation’s New York-born president, sent out an appeal for funds to rebuild the shul.
The international Jewish community responded, and on Sunday the new synagogue of Comunidad Hebrea de Tegucigalpa will be dedicated with a new name, Shevat Achim, brothers dwelling [together].
"A terrible thing turned into an opportunity" for Jews abroad to aid a small Jewish community (about 250 throughout the land) and for Honduran Jews to pitch together says Gelman, a former CARE executive who now serves in Tegucigalpa for Catholic Relief Services. "The experience put our community on the map."
His appeal, "mostly over the Internet," Gelman says, brought in $250,000, in addition to some $30,000 raised at home by the middle-class Honduran Jewish community. "The money began to come in, in rather large quantities. "Was I surprised? Surprised isn’t nearly a strong enough adjective. When you’re a community as small as we are, you can easily feel you are alone in the world."
B’nai B’rith International, the Joint Distribution Committee and American Jewish World Service also helped out financially, and Rabbi Emmanuel Vinas, a Torah scribe then working at the JCC on the Hudson in Tarrytown, volunteered to repair a Torah scroll rescued from the muck. He was assisted by a group of a few dozen volunteers he trained who were dubbed The Torah Team.
Gelman’s mother Evelyn and late father Milt took up the cause at the Park Avenue Synagogue.
"We’re not alone," says Gelman, who was in New York on a recent vacation.
The money raised allowed the community to build a new synagogue, a one-story, hexagonal multi-use structure with seating for 100, about three miles from the old building, which will be sold or rented.
Sunday’s dedication ceremony, to which local dignitaries and the Israeli ambassador and members of the Torah team were invited, will feature the unveiling of the congregation’s new name, a "Memorial Corner" honoring the generosity of the international donors, and a march of four sifrei Torah, three of them given by synagogues in the United States and Argentina, in the arms of the congregation’s former presidents.
The building will host Friday and holiday services, a community seder, a more-spacious Succah and an expanded series of educational events, Gelman says. "We’re always done these things. Now we will be able to do them more comfortably."
And drier. The building is in La Hacienda, a new residential neighborhood, "It’s nowhere near the river," Gelman says. "We’re nowhere near water."