WHILE the full force of Hurricane Florence was just hours away, Rabbi Doron Aizenman and his family fled from the North Carolina coastal town of Myrtle Beach... taking the community’s five Torah scrolls with them.
With the holy scriptures wrapped in waterproof containers, they headed inland to ride out the storm where flood waters would not be able to reach them. They left behind a ghost town.
“Everything here is closed — the shops, the businesses and the schools, including the Chabad Jewish Academy,” said Rabbi Aizenman, director of Chabad of Myrtle Beach.
Then he, his wife Leah and their family drove off with the words of state governor Roy Cooper ringing in his ears: “Disaster is on the doorstep, and it’s coming in.”
At least 12 people were to die after the Category 4 monster made landfall.
While 30,000 Jews live in the hurricane-lashed state, most of them are in North Carolina’s largest cities, clustered inland well away from the coast. But they, too, prepared for devastating flooding.
The Jewish community was in crisis mode while the first hurricane of the season was still offshore.
Chabad rabbis and volunteers helped people stock up with food, water and other essentials, and assisted them in boarding up homes in advance of the storm.
“We’ve even been preparing sandbags,” said Karen Savel, chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Raleigh-Cary, which represents more than half of the state’s Jews.
Rabbi Eli Reyder, who with his wife Sara directs Chabad activities in Carolina Forest just five miles from the coast, said: “We have been helping people find places to go, especially the elderly and the infirm who don’t have an easy time picking up and roughing it in a motel a few hundred miles from home.”
Despite mandatory evacuation orders, Rabbi Reyder said there were residents who chose to stay and ride out the storm — including some elderly ones.
As the fierce winds and lashing rain bore down on Shabbat, the rabbi offered to host a Jewish reporter who was assigned to cover the story for a TV news outlet.
“We weren’t sure if there would be a minyan, but we were praying and celebrating, and told him he was welcome to join us for the duration of Shabbat,” said Rabbi Reyder. “That is how we have been operating — taking one moment at a time, helping one person at a time.”
Some Chabad rabbis and their wives took on the role of a shadchan (matchmaker), pairing people up with neighbours who could walk over to check up on them as needed.
Many members of the Orthodox Beth El Sephardi Jewish Centre left Myrtle Beach in a convoy of cars and headed south to Miami, where they hoped to rent rooms in the same hotel and hold
Shabbat and Yom Kippur services there.
In the neighbouring state of South Carolina, where there are 14,000 Jews, plans were also being made.
“We’re preparing for a serious rainstorm — maybe 2-4 inches,” said Rabbi Brad Bloom, of Hilton Head Island.
“Regarding Yom Kippur services, we have made preparations to host people at our synagogue on Tuesday night. And if for some reason we can’t get in, the Unitarian church has offered the use of their facility.”
With Florence downgraded to a tropical storm as she tortuously made her way upstate, the weather bureau warned that there was plenty of rain still to come, especially in the coastal areas where about 25 inches could fall.
Early this week, 523,000 homes and businesses were still without power.