NYC, NY, /ATLANTA, GA, /FLA. SEPT 13, 2017 — Facing predictions of a direct hit from Hurricane Irma, the largest storm the Atlantic had ever seen, the OU’s Southeast Regional Director, Naftali Herrmann told his daughters’ nanny on Wednesday that they planned to evacuate from their home in Boca Raton to Atlanta. When he invited her to join them, she asked “Who do you know in Atlanta?”. “We don’t know anyone,” was his response “But the Jewish community is one family.”
Packing up their belongings, he took a last look at his house before driving away and felt emotional as he wondered what their house would look like upon their return. “Our house is our home”, he said, “It’s terrifying to think that our home which is supposed to be where we are safe can no longer afford that safety.”
Naftali and his family were one family among an estimated 350 Jewish families who evacuated from southern Florida, to be embraced by the warmth of the Atlanta Jewish community; for most of them, they had never met their hosts before.
Looking at the laughing camaraderie as the Florida visitors mingled with their Atlanta hosts at Kiddush, you would never imagine the worry they felt at what might happen to their homes- or the memories of the 20 hours spent in traffic, fearful that they would run out of gas, and with a fear unique to observant Jews, that they would be stuck on the road for Shabbat.
In the jubilant dancing at Kabbalat Shabbat, the festive communal meals at both of Atlanta’s largest shuls, the community-wide kumsitz on Saturday night and concert on Sunday morning, all of which had hundreds of attendees, one could sense the Florida families had found an oasis from the week-long stress and fear they had experienced as they prepared for the hurricane’s arrival.
The Atlanta Jewish community, known for its warmth and hospitality has opened its doors to hurricane victims before, in 2005 to evacuees from Hurricane Wilma and in 2016, to Savannah and Charleston evacuees from Hurricane Matthew. Once again, as soon as calls went out that hosts were needed, community members eagerly signed up, offering their homes to Florida evacuees for as long as needed, with one family hosting 75 people for Shabbat dinner and others willing to not only house families, but even families with dogs, cats and a snake! But with the two largest Orthodox synagogues, Beth Jacob and Young Israel of Toco Hills at around 500 and 215 families respectively, to feed another 1500 people was as Rabbi Adam Starr of Young Israel of Toco Hills explained, “like bringing in another congregation”. Finding so much food to feed so many people was a challenge.
The Orthodox Union was quick to step in and help out. With a $50,000 donation from the organization and donations from Jewish communities across the world, Yehuda Friedman, Associate Director of Synagogue Services at the OU helped to provide truckloads of food for Shabbat and the week, including 300 pounds of schnitzel, 3,000 hot dogs, 2,500 hamburgers, 1,200 challah rolls and 25 cases of pre-made lasagna. They also provided 50 dozen boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts and 75 pies of pizza which were served at the Kumsitz.
“It was amazing to see the kids who have witnessed so much stress to be dancing at the concert”, said Naftali with emotion in his voice, “While we are constantly thinking of our friends in South Florida who are weathering the storm, we have been so moved by the achdut [unity] we have seen and the embrace of the Atlanta Jewish community. For so many people to house people they don’t know and for an indefinite period of time and to see the communities come together as one… This is a weekend that both the evacuees and the hosts will never forget”.