In the wake of Sandy

After the hurricane, synagogue leaders pray for summer visitors to return

New Jeresey Synagogue 521 (photo credit: DAN IELLA CHESLOW)
New Jeresey Synagogue 521
(photo credit: DAN IELLA CHESLOW)
Karen Schwing had just celebrated her son’s bar mitzva in the synagogue of this resort island when the warnings about Hurricane Sandy came in.
Schwing, who owns a local restaurant with her husband, defied the mandatory evacuation orders and waited out the storm in her house with her family.
On that late October Monday, she watched five feet of water swish through her street, flooding her garage and whisking neighbors’ boats off their moorings. When the water subsided the following day, she put on a pair of old sneakers and went out wading through the sodden streets with her husband and daughter.
Her first destination was the local synagogue, three blocks from her house, where Schwing has been a board member for 19 years.
“Even though there was debris all over the parking lot, lots of wood and people’s decks and things like that, we were lucky,” she tells The Jerusalem Report. “None of the windows were broken. We had some electrical damage, but just to know that it wasn’t destroyed, that my son’s bar mitzva party was not the last one there – it was a huge sense of relief.”
Hurricane Sandy battered Long Beach Island, which gets its name from its shape, running for 18 narrow miles just off the New Jersey shore. The island’s houses are small and mostly raised on pilings. Pizza shops, ice cream parlors, surfing stores and hotels crowd the endless Long Beach Boulevard, which runs like a vein from LBI’s northern tip to the southern end. As an outcrop of the most densely populated state in the United States, LBI is so remarkable for its beauty and relaxed pace that the community’s Rabbi Michael Jay has called it “not unlike the Garden of Eden we read about in the Old Testament.”
During the storm, almost half the 20,000 homes on LBI were damaged by flooding.
The storm washed away protective dunes and scraped the beaches, ultimately leaving 1.8 million cubic meters of sand either in the sea or on the streets.
“It looked like we had a snow blizzard and we plowed all the streets, but the snow never melted,” LBI Mayor Joseph Mancini relates to The Report. “It was all sand.”
Synagogue leaders like Schwing were relieved the Jewish Community Center was spared the destruction. But now, the congregation is anxiously awaiting the summer.
Like all the businesses on LBI, the JCC relies on summer visitors for the bulk of its income. In the wake of Sandy, synagogue leaders, along with local business owners, are worried that despite a strong recovery, visitors may not choose a storm-tossed destination.
Fundraiser Rose Valentine says she hopes members will pay their dues and help close a $100,000 debt left over from the synagogue’s renovation. “If businesses don’t come back, if members don’t come back, we are all in it together,” Valentine tells The Report.
The synagogue is a tribute to beach-side worship. Freshly built two years ago, it is painted slate blue with white wood trim and a white Star of David in the gable. A black and white marquee in the parking lot advertises Friday night services in the same style as nearby hotels post room rates. Inside, donor acknowledgments are edged in driftwood.
The sanctuary seats are painted in a washed-out white with dark blue upholstery on a deep blue carpet.
“We say it’s like being wrapped in a tallis,” says Valentine, adding that the synagogue replaced an older building that had served the community since 1961 – a small, low-slung ranch structure that was full of mold. The old building was so tiny that after prayers, volunteers dragged away the chairs and replaced them with Kiddush tables. Valentine says the new building is a proud replacement, standing elegantly five feet off the ground. And that height saved the sanctuary; when Sandy inundated LBI, the flood-waters passed quietly underneath the JCC.
The nearly scratch-free synagogue was an exception. Mayor Mancini says the hurricane caused destruction so bad that he banned residents from returning to the island for two weeks. He ordered gas and electricity shut down because he worried about leaks and electrocutions. There were no injuries or fatalities, he says, probably owing to the forced evacuation prior to the storm’s arrival.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, Ocean County – which LBI is a part of – was one of the hardest hit in New Jersey. FEMA spokesman Christopher Mckniff says that of the $359 million in aid money disbursed in New Jersey, Ocean County received about $160 million.
After the storm, the JCC pitched in. The synagogue hosted community lunches for the few residents and the many construction workers on the island. And when a church on the island was flooded, the JCC hosted its weekly bridge game.
Several months after the hurricane, the island appears more livable, with sand cleared from the streets and a few restaurants and hotels open. But many other homes and businesses remain in rough shape. Inside the JCC, flyers advertise support group meetings and information about filing insurance claims.
Older members whose homes were destroyed have left LBI to stay with family while they rebuild.
Across New Jersey, insurance companies have been slow to process claims. A litany of new flood insurance rules means homeowners are hesitant to rebuild. In normal years, the LBI population of 10,000 swells to ten times that in summer, with most vacationers renting homes or staying in vacation houses.
So a slow reconstruction means fewer people come to stay.
But Mancini says there is no reason to worry about summer on LBI. About 90 percent of rental properties will be back online by the summer, and all the island’s restaurants will reopen for the 2013 summer. “It was a catastrophic storm,” he says. “We’re back.”
David Wyrsch Jr. handles rental properties for the Van Dyk Group, which manages about 750 properties on LBI. Almost all the properties are back in shape, he says. But Sandy wrecked boardwalks on other sections of the New Jersey shore and swept a roller-coaster into the sea in Seaside Heights, north of LBI. “When people think of LBI and what happened in the storm, they think of Seaside Heights,” Wyrsch tells The Report. “The issue we’re having is that we were not hit as hard, but we are being lumped in with the other places.”
The Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce has launched a multipronged campaign to bring visitors back. Events like Chocolate Week in February encouraged couples to come buy sweets on the shore.
Wyrsch says the timing of Sandy was fortuitous – just after last summer’s high season, giving locals all winter to repair before the 2013 season begins in May. Business is down about 30 percent from the same time last year, but he’s hopeful. “We’re thinking it’s going to be somewhat of an off summer, but it’s looking like we are going to have a decent amount of people,” he says.
At the synagogue Valentine says about onethird of the members have answered her plea to pay dues early. Summer visitors are still making plans, and Valentine says she cannot yet predict what will happen in high season.
Yet the real change may occur with the older synagogue members. Sandy may prove it is too difficult for the elderly to keep living in a flood zone.
Lionel Wolpert is one of those older members.
At 79, Wolpert has been a year-round resident of LBI for nearly two decades. During Sandy, he lost the bottom section of his house, where he had a garage, a car and a driveway.
The driveway was washed away, the garage soaked and the car wound up a block away and upside down. With the house uninhabitable, he used aid money from FEMA to rent a temporary apartment.
He says he will be back this summer – but the storm has made him think about moving off the island permanently. “I will be 80 in April, and it’s difficult to start to rebuild a house and do everything that you need to do to move in,” he tells The Report. “We may move to near where my daughter lives in Boston.
This might be the event that pushes me over the edge to move.”
Valentine is doing her part to get the regulars back. She sends out a weekly e-mail newsletter with updates about the synagogue, along with a list of businesses that are open, directions for filing paperwork with the government, and the meeting times of a Sandy support group. All the same, when the summer sun streams through the new building’s stained glass windows, Valentine wonders who will be there to enjoy it.
Mancini, for his part, says to look up. His father helped build the old synagogue, and he spoke at the ribbon-cutting for the new one.
“There’s no place like the Jersey shore,” he says. “We’ve worked 24/7 for the last three and a half months. We’re getting it done. Go to the synagogue, pray and have a little faith.
They’ll be here.”