WHEN Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov took her North Carolina congregation on a Rosh Hashana boat ride on the Cape Fear River, she hadn’t intended for the body of water’s name to be taken literally.
The Wilmington Reform synagogue was performing the ritual of tashlich, in which Jews throw pieces of bread into the water to symbolise the casting away of sins.
But by the end of the boat ride, the passengers were talking about what to do if the water threatens to swallow them up.
Conversations turned from the Jewish New Year to Hurricane Florence, which was looming off the Carolina coast. Would they evacuate or hunker down?
Residents began preparing to leave town. Rabbi Losben-Ostrov cancelled some of the High Holy Day programming at her Temple of Israel . . . and then the hurricane’s rain and wind began hitting the Carolina coast.
“It was definitely ironic to be on the water at that time and to look around and feel the calm before the storm . . . and have a fear in our hearts that this incredible, wonderful community, we don’t know what’s going to be,” she added.
Rabbis haven’t failed to see the connection between the natural disaster and the High Holy Days, where water is a prominent metaphorical device. Among the best-known lines of the holiday’s liturgy, from the Unetana Tokef prayer, is: “Who by water, and who by fire?”
Rabbi David Weissman, of Myrtle Beach’s Reform Temple Shalom, said a special prayer in advance of the hurricane and made plans to make it the focus of his Yom Kippur sermon.
Rabbi Shlomo Elharar, of the same town’s Orthodox Beth El Sephardi Jewish Centre, spoke in theological terms about the storm.
“We’re in exile,” Rabbi Elharar said, referring to his evacuating congregation. “Most of the congregation has left the city.
“We’re waiting for the kindness of God. It’s an atmosphere of war. It reminds me of the Yom Kippur War.”
Jewish communities followed the example of cities like Houston, whose Jewish suburbs were ravaged by Hurricane Harvey last year — they locked up their synagogues or moved their Sifrei Torah to dry ground.
And they began linking up with other Jewish communities in Atlanta or Miami that offered to host evacuees.
“In these times, you realise you’re part of this community that’s so much bigger than your one local community,” said Judi Corsaro, head of the Charleston Jewish Federation in South Carolina.
She and another employee remained in town to help people even as others left.
“If it were life threatening, we would leave,” she said. “But it has not been, and it feels good to be here. I’m not a hero, I’m not a martyr. It just makes sense to be here.”