Lakeland (The Ledger) — Rabbi David Goldstein stood Friday morning in the social hall of Temple Emanuel, in Lakeland, Florida describing the items used in services.
An ark — a large, wooden cabinet set against the eastern wall — holds seven scrolls of the Torah, Judaism's sacred writings, and a Ner tamid (eternal light) lamp sits atop it.
A reading table, stationed at the front right side of the room, provides a place to set unrolled Scriptures for recitation during services.
A massive banner, printed with an image of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, hangs high on the wall above the ark, contributing to the room's atmosphere.
It's a perfectly acceptable space for Temple Emanuel to hold services during the Jewish high holy days, but it isn't the designated sanctuary.
For the second year in a row, the congregation at the Lakeland synagogue is locked out of its sanctuary during the most sacred period of the Jewish calendar.
The culprit? Hurricane Irma.
More than a year after the hurricane
battered Polk County, Florida, the synagogue still awaits repairs to the sanctuary in which services are normally held. Goldstein said water driven by Irma's roughly 100-mph winds infiltrated the sanctuary, apparently through seams around a set of stained-glass windows.
The water found its way into the textured ceiling in the sanctuary, causing part of the ceiling to collapse and exposing asbestos, a carcinogenic mineral fiber commonly found in building materials used before the late 1970s.
Water also soaked parts of a carpet covering the floor of the sanctuary, Goldstein said, creating a mold hazard that must be addressed.
"Frustrating" is how Goldstein characterized the situation.
The long delay in restoring the sanctuary on the south shore of Lake Hollingsworth has occurred because the synagogue's insurance company rejected its claim, Goldstein said. The insurer determined that the water intrusion resulted from a lack of maintenance to the roof of the building constructed in the early 1960s, Goldstein said.
The rabbi disagreed, saying no water has entered the sanctuary in recent months despite frequent, heavy rains.
Instead of insurance money, the synagogue's leaders are counting on money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover the majority of the repair cost.
That makes Temple Emanuel part of a national news story about changes in policy at the federal agency.
FEMA, which oversees the disbursing of federal money after disasters, long had a policy of not providing relief funds to houses of worship. That policy reflected concerns about the First Amendment prohibition against the establishment of a state religion.
Shortly after Hurricane Irma, President Donald Trump expressed his opinion that churches should be allowed to receive federal disaster relief funds. Perhaps in response, churches and synagogues in Florida and Texas filed lawsuits challenging the restriction.
In early January, FEMA announced it would delete language in its rules that typically barred religious entities from getting aid available to other nonprofit groups.
Temple Emanuel has since applied for FEMA aid, synagogue president Allen Shane said. Under the agency's rules, the synagogue has to pay for the repairs and then receive a reimbursement.
Chairs bolted to the floor in the sanctuary will have to be removed in order to remove the carpet, Goldstein said.
FEMA's Public Assistance program reimburses applicants for no less than 75 percent of eligible costs, agency spokesman Alberto Pillot said. He said Temple Emanuel is about midway through the process of receiving funds.
The synagogue is now taking bids from contractors for the repair work, said Shane, a member of the congregation for decades.
"FEMA has been very good to work with," Shane said. "Like any other government program, they have all their policies and procedures you have to go through. It's a major undertaking to do it, but they've been excellent to work with."
Hurricane Irma arrived about 10 days before Rosh Hashanah, the start of the high holy days. The synagogue buildings were without power for eight or nine days, and Goldstein said he arranged for an emergency generator to be used.
Last year, First Presbyterian Church invited Temple Emanuel to hold High Holy Days services in its sanctuary. A local moving company, Two Men and a Truck, offered to haul the needed sacred elements — the ark and reading table — to the church.
Since then, Temple Emanuel, affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, has held regular weekly services in a makeshift space inside its educational building. Services for High Holy Days take place in the adjacent building.
The social hall, which abuts the sanctuary, is large enough to hold the 150 or so people who attend services for the most important holy days. Goldstein said synagogue leaders have moved every available chair into the space for those ceremonies.
In addition to the ark and reading table, a rabbi's lectern has been installed in the room. The Torah scrolls are covered with special, white mantles for the high holy days.
Adding to the synagogue's woes, lightning struck the air-conditioning unit on the building's roof a few days before the start of Rosh Hashanah on Sept. 10. Goldstein said temple leaders had to make an emergency purchase of a new unit.
The strike melted two legs of the unit, and Goldstein said he's confident an insurance policy will cover the replacement.
High Holy Days conclude with Simchat Torah, which ends at sunset Oct. 2. After that, the congregation will resume holding services in the education building.
"Hopefully, within one year we will be completely normal," Goldstein said.
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