East Coast Jewish communities brace for Hurricane Irene

Virginia synagogue cancels weekend services, congregants evacuate low-lying areas as severe storm threatens US.

By GIL STERN STERN SHEFLER
August 26, 2011 20:11
2 minute read.
US urges citizens to prepare for Hurricane Irene

Hurricane Irene 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

NEW YORK – Jewish communities in the projected path of Hurricane Irene on Friday were bracing for the coming of the severe storm expected to reach the mouth of Chesapeake Bay area this weekend.

At least one synagogue in the Hampton Roads region surrounding the bay received evacuation orders and canceled its services while others said they were following developments closely.

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“We made the decision to close the synagogue which was not easy an easy decision to make,” said Pam Gladstone, executive director of Beth El Synagogue in Norfolk, Virginia. ” By 8 AM on Saturday morning everyone in this area is supposed to be evacuated so we’re getting ready and putting up sand bags in our doorway. Our Torah scrolls are in our sanctuary in an elevate bima so we feel they are safe there.”

Gladstone said many members of the Conservative congregation and its clergy had taken refuge further inland in Richmond and Charlotte.

She recalled the damage wrought by the last major storm which passed through the coastal city in 2003.

“We did have some damage in this area but we were fortunate that the synagogue was not damaged,” she said. “The rain and wind, however, brought down a lot of trees around it. But that was just a tropical storm and this is a hurricane.”

The Hampton Roads area which encompasses Norfolk, Virginia Beach and other towns around the Chesapeake Bay is home to some 11,000 Jews and several Jewish places of worship. So far the low-lying Beth El Synagogue is the only one to have canceled services entirely although others had changed prayer times in light of the expected arrival of the storm.

Sarah Zimmerman, administrative assistant of Ohef Shalom Synagogue in Norfolk, a reform congregation founded in 1844, said Friday services would be held as usual but that Saturday services had been canceled.

“There are houses behind us that are part of the mandatory evacuation,” she said. “The city mapped out an area of streets that are part of category one, two and three evacuation zones but we’re not part of that right now.”

Michelle Aronoff, the office manager of Beth Israel Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Norfolk, said its rabbi had instructed members to stay home if conditions deteriorate.

“We're holding mincha early but on top of everything we have a bat mizvah planned this weekend,” Aronoff said.

She said the synagogue circulated an advisory to its members on Thursday and was keeping them informed of the latest developments.

“It’s in God’s hands now,” she added.

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