Surviving Sandy: Shabbat in the dark

Jewish residents of Teaneck, New Jersey, struggle to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Tree felled by Sandy 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen)
Tree felled by Sandy 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen)
TEANECK, New Jersey – On a suburban block that is practically pitch black, the windows of one house are illuminated, and the front door swings open and closed as people come and go.
In Teaneck, a northern New Jersey town home to more than 12,000 Jews – the majority of whom are observant – residents struggled to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy almost a week later.
While the danger from the storm had passed, the impact had not.
On Thursday, tree limbs and branches littered the streets and some roads were blocked by entirely uprooted trees or downed live power lines. No traffic lights operated, and plastic orange cones marked detours throughout the streets – some to avoid blocked roads and others to alleviate traffic at busy intersections with no lights.
Almost all the gas stations within the town and for miles around were shut – half without power, the other half had run out of fuel. Those that somehow remained open had lines of cars at least 50 deep, and dozens of people waiting on foot to fill up canisters.
Roads leading to highways toward New York City were backed up for kilometers, as cars with less than three passengers were being turned away from Manhattan.
Local shopping malls were packed with people sitting on the floor next to outlets, charging up cellphones and computers.
For most of the week, the majority of Teaneck had no power.
After several similar incidents over the past few years, some residents have invested in generators, and their doors are the ones propped open to their neighbors – in need of Wi-Fi, laundry, heating up food, charging phones. or simply a warm room to sit in for a few hours.
Some of the lucky homeowners sent emails to neighbors inviting them to stop by, while others distributed fliers in mailboxes, offering a place to use electricity, Internet or a stove.
A local kosher restaurant, Noah’s Ark, was also without power, but it opened up its diesel-powered freezer truck for residents to bring boxes of food so they wouldn’t spoil.
Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, an Orthodox synagogue with 800 member families, held daily prayer services in the home of a member who had a generator, and sent an email out to congregants asking for hosts for Shabbat services.
Another synagogue, Keter Torah, held some prayers in their parking lot during the week, and canceled others.
As four days without power turned into five, and some sections of the area started to light up again, the community began to contemplate how to arrange a Shabbat in the dark.
Keter Torah scheduled services and provided food for meals to be held at seven homes around town who either had power or a generator, before canceling them when power was restored late Friday afternoon.
The synagogue relocated the meals – for those with power or without – to the synagogue building.
Friday night prayers at all the synagogues were scheduled early, so attendees didn’t have to walk home in the pitch black – without the assistance of street lamps or the glow from windows.
The Beth Abraham synagogue urged all residents to refrain from walking around at night, to avoid tripping over fallen tree limbs and mangled sidewalks in the dark.
The Jewish Center of Teaneck said services would be held as normal, but warned that with the power out, “the Torah reading may be a little – or a lot – ragged.”
Information was disseminated throughout the town’s Jewish community as it usually is – via the 12,000-member email listserv known as TeaneckShuls.
Requests flew back and forth: Anyone selling a generator? Can someone store food in their fridge for me? I have spare ice if anyone needs. Who wants a ride to the Upper West Side tomorrow morning? Does anybody know which gas stations are open? I’m hosting Shabbat services in my home if anybody is interested. Looking for a third person to be in my carpool into Manhattan.
At the generator-blessed house, one woman stopped by to heat up food for her family for dinner. Another came to do a laundry load of baby clothes for her granddaughter, and a couple came to charge up their laptops.
One man came in to retrieve food he’d left in the fridge, and another came to log on to the Wi-Fi in order to email a legal brief he’d completed, and download a recording of a Daf Yomi shiur – the daily Talmud lesson.
A neighbor came by to get the phone number of the generator installation crew, and another woman stopped by to pick up the phone she’d left to charge earlier that day. Several women coordinated their pre- Shabbat shopping trips with each other to conserve their dwindling gas supplies.
The neighbors made plans, swapped tips on keeping warm, tuned into the local news and lingered over hot coffee.
By Saturday night, PSE&G, the local gas and electric utility company, estimated that 40 percent of Teaneck had been restored to the power grid.
Estimates for the rest were anywhere from one to five days for the town and the surrounding neighborhoods.
As more communal buildings regained their power, synagogues and community centers sent out emails offering places to charge phones, watch movies and sit in heated rooms.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie issued a gas rationing plan, assigning certain days to refuel based on license plate numbers.
As those with power struggled to return to normal, restocking groceries, checking on relocated polling places and rescheduling canceled activities, the rest – those still in the dark – sat, waited and prayed for the moment everything would flicker back to life.