And for some Jewish Pittsburghers it became an opportunity to house co-religionists they didn’t even know but were eager to assist.
Jews as well as millions of residents from North Carolina to Maine, felt the brunt of Irene, which caused billions of dollars in damage, left 5 million people without power and is blamed for at least 40 deaths in 11 states, two of whom were Jewish.
David Reichenberg, a 50-year-old Orthodox Jewish father of four from Spring Valley, N.Y., died saving a father and his 6-year-old son from a downed power line. But Reichenberg came into contact with the live wire himself and was electrocuted.
Rozalia Gluck, 82, became trapped in a Catskills motel that raging flood waters swept away. Authorities recovered her body late Sunday.
Reichenberg’s death came after he stopped to help a Jewish boy and his father who had been viewing damage outside their home in Rockland County, N.Y. The boy had touched a metal fence electrified by a fallen wire. Reichenberg pulled the two from the fence, but could not escape himself, witness Moishe Lichtenstein told the New York Daily News.
“When I got there the victim was on the ground and he was touching the wire, which was in the water,” Lichtenstein said. “When emergency officials got there, they couldn’t touch him. We were standing there for like five or 10 minutes. We were just praying, ‘God help this man.’ ”
Reichenberg was pronounced dead at the scene and was buried Sunday night. The injured boy, Reuven Herbst, was reported to be in critical but stable condition as of Monday. His father, whose name was not released, suffered only minor injuries.
In an interview with JTA, a longtime friend of Reichenberg, Rabbi Avrohom Braun, described Reichenberg as an “upbeat person with unshakable faith.” Braun is director of admissions and education at Ohr Somayach yeshiva, which Reichenberg attended 25 years ago. Every morning, Reichenberg, who ran a sign-making shop, would attend 6 a.m. classes before opening his store, Braun said. He also said Reichenberg regularly volunteered to help coordinate Shabbat meals for impoverished families in Rockland County, which has a large population of Orthodox Jews.
As the cleanup effort began late Sunday and the East Coast began to return to some semblance of normalcy on Monday — in many areas, public transportation was still unavailable — the major denominational synagogue groups were trying to make contact with constituent congregations in areas without power or telephone lines. They were hindered by staff members unable to get to work due to lack of train service and impassable roads.
Except for power outages and some minor flooding, no synagogues reported much damage. Congregations had moved Torah scrolls and historical documents to safe buildings on high ground, said Rabbi Elliott Kleinman, chief program director for the Union for Reform Judaism.
Even before the storm struck, the Jewish community attempted to prepare for the worst.
Some New York neighborhoods that are home to large Jewish communities were evacuated by order of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, including Brighton Beach and portions of Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and Far Rockaway in Queens.
In Baltimore, the Rosenbloom Jewish Community Center opened its doors to 395 foreign workers, mostly Eastern European college students who had been evacuated from Ocean City, Md., the Baltimore Jewish Times reported. Although the JCC, located in the Baltimore suburb of Owings Mills, Md., had been designated an emergency evacuation center three years ago, this was the first time the building had been used for that purpose.
Some East Coast families, heeding evacuation orders, came to Pittsburgh and were put up by local Jewish families.
Shmuel “Jay” Angel, executive director of Congregation Poale Zedeck, said he began receiving calls from Jews on the East Coast last week before the storm hit, looking for home hospitality here.
“Earlier in the week, we placed somebody from Baltimore,” Angel said. “That was on Thursday or so. On Friday I got this call from a family of eight; they said they wanted to leave specifically because of the weather. … I was concerned we were going to get more.”
So he sent out an email appeal. He was inundated with responses.
“I probably could have handled 50 people,” Angel said. [Local residents were saying] I have floor space, we’ll squeeze them in. … Everybody said yes, whatever they could do, they said, yes.
“I think it was a real tribute to the community,” Angel added. “It genuinely helps its own.”
In the end, Josh Wander and his family in Squirrel Hill took the family of two adults and six children in. The Wanders also offered to accept more. The family, which came from Brooklyn, returned home Sunday afternoon. Local Chabad families also housed Jewish evacuees.
“I asked them if this was the closest place they could go to,” Wander said of his guests. “They said, ‘We were looking for Orthodox cities outside the hurricanes path … so I guess Pittsburgh was the closest they found.”
Indeed, Philadelphia, Scranton and Harrisburg, all of which have Orthodox communities, were in the path of Irene. Gov. Tom Corbett toured damage from the storm earlier this week.
At least five deaths in Pennsylvania were blamed on the storm, which also left tens of thousands of people without power.