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Atlanta's Jewish Community Hosts Irma Evacuees

E. Lieman

Florida governor Rick Scott warned residents to flee the “life-threatening storm” with the urgent plea, “You’ve got to get out”

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

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COME ONE, COME ALL As the nearest frum center, known for its warm, Southern-style hachnassas orchim, Atlanta was the destination for hundreds of South Florida families who tumbled into the city on Friday, looking for a safe haven over Shabbos

A fter tearing through the Caribbean, leaving more than 20 people dead in its wake and ravaging resort islands, Hurricane Irma roared across the Florida Keys early Sunday. As it drove northward into Miami and toward central Florida, it downed cranes, flooded streets, and led to large-scale power outages that affected millions. While downgraded from category 5 to category 4, Irma was still forecast to be the most powerful hurricane ever recorded, spurring one of the biggest evacuations ever — about 6.3 million people in Florida, more than a quarter of the state’s population.

Florida governor Rick Scott warned residents to flee the “life-threatening storm” with the urgent plea, “You’ve got to get out.”

As the nearest frum center, known for its warm, Southern-style hachnassas orchim, Atlanta was the destination for hundreds of South Florida families who tumbled into the city on Friday, looking for a safe haven over Shabbos after spending more than 20 hours on the road (double the usual travel time). Atlanta community members, some of whom had previously been busy with Harvey victims, welcomed the harried, anxious, and exhausted refugees, reassuring them and tending to all their needs.

“This has been a life-changing experience,” Jodi Wittenberg, a volunteer who worked almost round the clock on behalf of the displaced Floridians, told Mishpacha.

The co-owner of a kosher supermarket in Atlanta, she arranged meals for many of the families. Communal meals were served before Shabbos, on Shabbos, and into the beginning of this week at Congregation Beth Jacob, Atlanta’s largest shul.

The Atlanta Jewish community galvanized for action as soon as word got out that Miami was ordered to evacuate, and that thousands would need places to stay over Shabbos. Within hours a grassroots campaign was launched, and 930 evacuees were placed at the homes of local hosts.

Jodi Wittenberg: “Different groups that usually have minimal interaction were sitting together at the meals, schmoozing, singing together, sharing divrei Torah. I don’t think anyone who was involved — whether a host, a guest, a volunteer or even someone on the sidelines — will ever forget this”

“We used Google Forms to streamline the process,” Rabbi Yitz Tendler, executive director of Beth Jacob, told Mishpacha. “Because there was so much data to sift through, we had volunteers looking through the forms and making the matches.”

In addition to the over 900 placements the community made, Tendler said there were hundreds of others who made their own sleeping arrangements “the old-fashioned way, through their cousin’s cousin’s cousin who knows someone.”

WhatsApp groups were created to network between volunteers, community members, and guests. One group, called “The Miami-Atlanta Shabbaton” was designated for people still in transit, with information on where to stop for food, traffic reports, and other relevant items, Wittenberg said.

Communal meals held at the shul were a moving experience for everyone. “The scope of the operation was mind-boggling,” Wittenberg said.

“Some 350 people joined for the Friday night meal, 400 came for Shabbos lunch, and Shalosh Seudos had about 500. (The rest of the evacuees ate the Shabbos meals at their hosts.) On Motzaei Shabbos, two local caterers served pizza and mac-and-cheese at a kumzitz that attracted about 600 people.”

The achdus was unprecedented, volunteer Rabbi Yaakov Haller says. “Different groups that usually have minimal interaction were sitting together at the meals, schmoozing, singing together, sharing divrei Torah. I don’t think anyone who was involved — whether a host, a guest, a volunteer or even someone on the sidelines — will ever forget this.”

A large part of the expenses for the shabbaton were covered by the OU, and the rest of the money was donated by individuals, who were inspired by the selfless giving they were witnessing. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 677) 

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