This week’s Torah portion is filled with horrific stories about the state of a world at the brink of devastation. God nearly destroys Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham nearly kills his beloved son, Isaac. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, God becomes enraged by the immorality of a few and sets out to destroy entire towns in his fury. Abraham sees God in this low place and responds by arguing with him to save the people on behalf of the innocent.
Later on in the Torah portion, Abraham sets out to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah. God sees Abraham’s pain and suffering and at the very last second, intervenes by sending an angel to stop him. Abraham and God served as witnesses for one another at each end of the Torah portion. They saw that all was not okay with the other and found a way to bring each other out of a place that they could not bring themselves.
This week, all is not okay in New York City. Every single New Yorker is in a low place, including those of us who were fortunate enough to not be directly affected by the storm. I happen to live in a neighborhood in Brooklyn that had very minimal damage. A few trees are down, that’s it. Shops have been open since Wednesday and people are out and about. On the surface, everything appears to be okay. In reality, nothing is okay.
This is my 5th, and most likely my last, year living in Brooklyn and I finally feel like I can call myself a New Yorker. When I first moved here I was a nice midwesterner who said good morning to people when I went for runs. I had the impression that New Yorkers were cold, loud, and mean. The more time I’ve spent here, the more I’ve realized this stereotype couldn’t be further from the true. Yes, New Yorkers walk quickly and many don’t smile at people they pass on the street. That’s because walking is not a leisure activity here, it’s a commute. Even in the midwest we don’t roll down our windows to make small talk to the random person next to us at a stoplight. The truth is that I’ve met some of the kindest and selfless people in the world during my time in New York. It wasn’t until this week, however, that I understood what it really means to be a New Yorker, and that is to be a witness of pain and to respond with all your being.
This week, I have witnessed some of the most extreme pain I have ever seen in my life. I have volunteered at Brooklyn Tech High School, in the center of the Fort Greene neighborhood in Brooklyn, which is currently serving as one of the many evacuation centers. It is housing hundreds of evacuees from various homes in Brooklyn, many of whom are elderly, and have mental health, and/or medical issues.
The pain in this shelter is abundant. Many of the evacuees spent 12 or 13 hours in an ambulance during the evacuation and arrived with only the clothes on their back. They didn’t have a lot to begin with and now they have nothing. They don’t have family or friends to call and pick them up. If they did, they wouldn’t be there. They are poor and they are in need, but more than any of that, their biggest complaint is boredom. They sit on cots, or roam around the halls of the high school for hours on end with nothing to do.
The response to help the people in this shelter has been both frustrating and inspiring at the same time. On the one hand, it is obvious that the city was not prepared for this type of situation. There is almost zero organization. There is no number to call for information, you have to either show up, or talk to others who have been, to find out what the current needs are. There is no such thing as a volunteer coordinator, at least there wasn’t when I was there. When I showed up I had to ask multiple people what I could do to help and everyone gave vague answers like, “ummm... why don’t you try the seventh floor.” When I found my way to the seventh floor I discovered at least thirty volunteers standing around the cafeteria that was about to serve dinner. Nobody gave instructions and when I asked people who looked like they knew what they were doing they always responded, “I don’t know, I’m not in charge.” So what did we do? We spread out, helped where we could and sat down with people while they ate to keep them company.
On the second floor, I witnessed a volunteer trying to help a man who had come to try to find a family member who he thought was in this shelter. One of the staff members (from a team of medical staff from North Carolina) told the man that they didn’t have any lists of who was in what room. He said, “We’re just here from North Carolina to help with medical needs. Unfortunately we don’t know anything about the people who are here, not their medical history, nothing. We barely know their names.” They told the man he would essentially have to walk the halls and look from room to room to find his loved one. So that's what he did, and a volunteer went with him.
Despite what can only be described as utter chaos, the warmth, love and compassion that I witnessed in the shelter could literally not be stronger. Volunteers who have no experience assisting grown adults go to the bathroom, took on these roles. People who have no experience in chaplaincy, were sitting with evacuees and listening to their stories, keeping them company and nourishing their souls. Volunteers were feeding people who couldn’t feed themselves and cleaning up after them in ways that usually only a nurse or close loved one would do. I was blown away by the number of people who came to help and their willingness to do any task, no matter how challenging or mundane. The volunteers at Brooklyn Tech are in no way unique. This week I have witnessed some of the most unbelievable compassion and kindness and it makes me proud to call myself a New Yorker, or more appropriately, a Brooklynite.
The needs of the evacuees at Brooklyn Tech HS are a very small example of the great and varied needs of people across the city and across the northeast. Thousands have lost everything and unfortunately some have lost their lives to this terrible storm. It is a horrible week in our parasha and it has been a horrible week for my neighbors. In our Torah portion, Abraham and God teach us to be a witness to our neighbor’s pain and respond appropriately. I have witnessed so much this week and we are only at the very beginning of what will be a long and difficult recovery. The need is real and extensive and the response is underway. If you are in New York, I know you are already doing what you can. You all inspire me and you make me proud. If you are outside of New York, I pray that you will see our pain and respond with whatever support you can provide.
If you want to donate, but don’t know where, I’d like to suggest you support one of my friends and classmates, Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, in her effort to bring blankets to those in need in Brooklyn. Read Below:
"It started yesterday. I asked my partner how we could get a bunch of water from downtown Brooklyn to Red Hook. She said "shopping carts." I called Trader Joe's on Court Street. They lent us two carts. We walked from downtown to Red Hook and pushed cases of water, peanut butter, and baby food. When I got home, I posed on Facebook and told friends they could send some money if they wanted to help out. Less than 24 hours later, we've raised over $2200 for #blankets4brooklyn. This morning, we purchased 250 blankets and friends drove them to a distribution center in Sunset Park Brooklyn. We are going to continue buying the most needed goods (next up: coolers to keep much-wanted hot food warm) and getting them to the directly affected. You want to help out? We'll take whatever you'll give. Just log in to PayPal (easy to create an account if you don't have one). Click the navy blue "Send Payment" button and submit however much you want to give to RachelGMeyer@gmail.com. I can't give you a tax write-off but I can assure you it'll get to those who need it most and I can send you a GIGANTIC Brooklyn hug!"