Volunteers transform Florida Chabad centers into hurricane-relief centers


Bruria Efune | Special to JT
All photos Chabad.org/News

In one short, horrific moment last week, Sasha Greto lost her home and everything in it to Hurricane Ian. A violent storm surge submerged her neighborhood in Venice, Fla., and brought five feet of water into her house. There was no salvaging; the water didn’t have anywhere to go. Even four days later, on Sunday afternoon, it was still there.

In the wake of Hurricane Ian, which ripped through Florida at the end of September, Chabad has been providing meals to neighborhood residents wherever possible.

Greto, a mother of two, was devastated about her home but when she looked around her neighborhood, all she saw were trapped people in need of help. “My neighborhood is full of children and elderly, and the police couldn’t get there yet. So we took our neighbor’s kayak and canoe, and went over to people who were really stuck and in danger, and brought them out by boat.”

On Oct. 2, Greto arrived at Chabad of Venice, where she works as a secretary, and found that its directors, Rabbi Sholom Ber and Chaya Rivka Schmerling, had turned the center into a hurricane-relief headquarters. “Rabbi Schmerling had it all set up: an outdoor kitchen, truckloads of food and supplies, teams of volunteers. He had maps and routes for volunteers to get to families who were unaccounted for.”

In the four days since the at times Category 4 storm decimated much of the state—killing at least 76 and leaving countless residents without homes, electricity or a means of transportation—Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries throughout Florida, along with community members, friends and volunteers knee-deep in rescue efforts, feeding thousands and delivering basic necessities to thousands of other people.

In Venice, Greto took 40 hot meals, bottles of water and baby formula from the Chabad center and went back to her neighborhood and onto a boat. “I distributed it to people who were so grateful. The Chabad family is amazing, and I’m so lucky to be part of it.”

Asked how she found the strength to help others when she herself had lost everything, Greto replied: “It’s how I was raised. When people are in a time of need, others have to step up. There’s not much I can do for myself, so I’m not going to just lie down and give up.”

She was not alone. Not long before Rosh Hashanah but still before Hurricane Ian was a concern, Chabad of Venice had hosted a new event, calling for volunteers.

Volunteer Sasha Greto wades through a flooded street in Venice, Fla., to bring aid to a homebound resident.

“We wanted to create leaders,” said Rabbi Sholom Ber Schmerling. “The community needs volunteers to help people with so many different things. We invited the community to create a team of volunteers who would take initiative where needed, and it could not have come at a better time.”

Sixty people signed up, not knowing that their very first task was coming soon and would be monumental.

The hurricane hit on Sept. 28, and Venice was one area that got the brunt of it. For three days, there was no cell service. Five days out and still no one has electricity. As soon as the storm left, Schmerling sent out volunteers to check on people. In some cases, volunteers had to swim to get to people, even just to bring them food and water.

With the new volunteer corps, Schmerling quickly got organized and mapped out points of need. Chabad of Boca Raton came in with dozens of additional volunteers and tons of kosher food to prepare thousands of meals. Rabbis Yossie Dubrowski and Pinny Backman from Chabad of Tampa brought another busload of volunteers for rescue efforts. Donations of food, toiletries and clothing began pouring in by the truckload.

By Sunday morning, Schmerling had an industrial-sized generator to power the Chabad center. “We now have 200 people here from the community—Jewish, non-Jewish, everybody together. They can eat a fresh meal, get food and water, charge their phones and rest up in an air-conditioned building away from the oppressive Florida heat. We even have volunteers helping people with insurance claims.”

At 4 a.m. on Thursday, the phone of Rabbi Fishel Zaklos of Chabad of Naples rang. Edith Cohen, 88, was on the line.

“I heard banging all night, but I didn’t have electricity,” she said. “I was very frightened. I opened my shutters and saw that a tree fell on my house; it narrowly missed my bedroom.”

It was no longer safe for Cohen to stay at home. Zaklos found a community member able to reach her and bring her to safety.

Rabbi Fishel Zaklos in Naples, Fla.

“It’s unimaginable! I’ve been through many hurricanes but never seen anything like this,” related Cohen. “The rabbi quickly got me a place to stay and food. I know he really cares about me; I’m very lucky to have the Chabad community.”

She was only the first of many rescues. At daybreak, Zaklos got straight to work with a team of Hatzalah Air volunteers. “We have many elderly people in the community. It’s concerning. Most of the rescues have been for people aged 80 and up.”

One elderly woman was stuck on the second floor of her home for two days without food. The first floor was completely flooded, and the police weren’t able to get to her neighborhood yet. Another family of six was found terrified, stuck in the dark with rising water.

“That’s the situation many times, really,” said Zaklos. “People stuck in dark flooded homes with no way of calling for help. It’s very traumatic.”

On Friday, through her spotty internet and phone connection, Paula Schaffer-Ellis managed to get through to Zaklos. The rabbi had been looking for volunteers to deliver food to people who were trapped in their homes or unaccounted for. “I saw that he was in need of volunteers at Chabad, and I said: ‘Please tell me what time to be there.’ ”

Schaffer-Ellis brought her 16-year-old son David along to the Naples Chabad Center, where they met the rabbi. “It was right before Shabbat, and he was coordinating food deliveries, helping people in need, arranging people to evacuate flooded houses. Just being there with him—it was a blessing, especially for my son to see it.”

Zaklos told the pair about an elderly couple who were unaccounted for. The couple’s daughter had called him explaining that she lived in a different state but was deeply worried about her parents. She hadn’t heard from them since before the hurricane, and they were alone without electricity, phone service or enough food supplies to last. The elderly couple lived on the 18th floor of an apartment building and with no operational elevator, they couldn’t leave.

Paula and David Scaffer-Ellis volunteering at the Chabad center
in Naples.

Paula and David didn’t even hesitate. They took meals from the Chabad center and headed over to the building. After climbing 18 flights of stairs, they found the apartment and knocked on the door. When the elderly couple opened it, they were completely taken aback. “All these years, I’m not used to kindness like this,” declared the woman.

On the way back down the 18 flights, David told his mother: “Mom, we always question what happiness is … I feel happy right now. For me, this is happiness. Being able to help them—and I can’t wait to help more people.”

“David wants to be a doctor,” said Paula. “He wants to help people. In that moment, I saw him doing what he loves. Knowing that he chose the right path makes me so happy.”

“I would go up those flights again,” she added. “I would go up 36 flights for that!”

Dubrowski from Tampa found a Holocaust survivor who was trapped in her home after a tree fell on her doorway, leaving her no way to escape. His group of volunteers sawed and removed the tree, setting her free.

Another family was found imprisoned. The electricity poles had fallen right around their home, and the combination of wires and water made it extremely dangerous to approach. The Chabad volunteers threw meals, bottled water and other food items to them, reassuring the family that they’ll keep coming until they can safely leave their home.

Similar rescues were and are happening in other Chabad communities of Southwest Florida. In Cape Coral, Rabbi Yossi and Rivky Labkowski lost connection with many community members when not only did they lose power and phone service, but entire bridges collapsed, leaving neighborhoods completely inaccessible. They organized lists and estimated locations of those stranded and unaccounted for, and continue to work closely with search-and-rescue teams.

In Cape Coral, Rabbi Yossi and Rivky Labkowski hosted hundreds for Shabbat meals, despite having no running water, power or phone service. They continue to provide food and other necessities, including generators, and now need to think of the next big thing, noting that “it may take months for power to get restored.”

Reprinted with permission from Chabad.org/News.

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