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Blown Away by Love: Atlanta Hosts Over 1000 Jewish Evacuees

September 11, 2017 | by Rivka Ronda Robinson

A storm of giving and compassion is unleashed, creating unity and camaraderie in its wake.

In Atlanta synagogues all over town welcomed more than 1,000 Jews who fled Florida and coastal Georgia ahead of Hurricane Irma, which forecasters called one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean.

The evacuees included everyone from pregnant young women to old men in wheelchairs. (Word quickly spread that one of the women had given birth to a baby boy after arriving in Atlanta.) They reflected the many faces of Jews from all backgrounds, from girls in blue jeans to guys in black hats.

Many invoked one word throughout the Shabbat of Hurricane Irma: Unity. Family hosts and guests became friends and played Jewish geography, discovering amazing coincidences of connection. For instance, the son of an Atlanta host had been roommates with the son-in-law of her Florida guest.

Community members not only provided shelter from the storm, but also fed guests thousands of meals, from bagels to baked ziti and chicken to cholent.

“It feels like family,” declared Ilana Parsons of North Miami Beach at a kumzitz, a Saturday evening gathering with lively music and dancing at Young Israel of Toco Hills,

She, her husband, son, mother and niece drove 650 miles to Atlanta to escape the hurricane. “We’re overwhelmed by the kindness, friendliness and compassion of the Atlanta Jewish community. They go the extra mile, putting welcome signs all over the shuls and in yards.”

Her husband, Rabbi Avi Parsons, added, “Everybody’s opened their doors and made you feel like you’re doing them a favor” to be able to provide hospitality.

Control center

Indeed, Rabbis Ilan Feldman and Dov Foxbrunner of Congregation Beth Jacob noted in the shul bulletin, “To the Atlanta host community: We have been presented with an opportunity to unleash the latent giving and compassionate nature that exists in every Jewish heart. We know that, if roles were reversed, our guests would gladly be our hosts. We are immensely inspired by the outpouring of love and creativity in such a short span of time, and by the accomplishments that came from amazing teamwork. In addition, we thankfully acknowledge our partnership with Young Israel and others throughout the community, without which this would not have been possible.”

Jodi Wittenberg, one of the Congregation Beth Jacob/Young Israel of Toco Hills team of 14 “command central” volunteers who arranged housing and feeding logistics in a mere 48 hours, credited the Orthodox Union for providing money to sponsor meals. “None of this would have happened as smoothly as it did had we not had their financial and emotional support.”

She said the impetus for reach out started when community rabbis Rabbi Adam Starr of Young Israel and Ilan Feldman of Congregation Beth Jacob made an emergency trip to Houston to help pull out drywall and remove holy books after Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc there. They saw the devastation and came home knowing they had to do something to help Floridians in the path of Hurricane Irma.

Right after they returned home they began a relief effort. A team of volunteers in the Atlanta Orthodox community mobilized “command central” working their laptops and smartphones. They put out the word on social media that Atlanta was eager to house Hurricane Irma evacuees. Eager guests filled out questionnaires about their dietary preferences and any special needs. Then the volunteers matched guests to appropriate hosts.

Rabbi Starr called it making shidduchim, the Hebrew word for matches. He noted Atlanta is the largest nearby Orthodox community to Florida that wasn’t directly in the path of the hurricane. It would be a tremendous kindness to assist people in getting out of harm’s way.

The prospect of a safe place to land helped convince several Floridians to evacuate ahead of the storm. “I was going to stay,” admitted Gershon Schwadron, a caterer from Boca Raton and former banquet chef at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. “But one of my friends said he was going to get out. Atlanta opened up the community and we drove up together.”

The highlight of his Shabbat in Atlanta? “Not being in a hurricane.”

All of Atlanta was looking for a way to help. Other Atlanta Jewish institutions pitched in to help Irma evacuees, as synagogues and community members opened their doors to evacuees.

A sense of love and camaraderie prevailed all weekend. “This is our Woodstock,” said Rabbi Israel Robinson of Atlanta, as a Jewish band played spiritedly in the background at the kumzitz.

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