People First

It’s been an interesting couple of months here in New Jersey. First, in August, an earthquake rocked us, and while it was fortunately a minor event in seismological terms, it scared lots of folks. I was in my office meeting with two women – as soon as we realized the quake was over we each, without a word, grabbed our phones to call our husbands. The seismic event became a people-to-people event, as we connected with each other, our loved ones, our friends, and the world. A friend from Israel was quick to write, having seen the posts on Facebook. She wanted to be sure I was ok. At the end of the day, what we remember most from that day not the earthquake itself, which was inconsequential, but the way we reached out to each other in an uncontrollable festival of caring and friendship.

Then Hurricane Irene hit later in August, and despite the meteorological observation that it was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it hit New Jersey, we still refer it as “the hurricane,” since its impact in our area was significant. Thousands of trees and limbs fell, doing their damage along the way. Floods filled basements, some homes, and many businesses. Many people went without power for several days, losing all their cold food, enduring the hot August week in stuffy homes. Nerves were frayed. But once again, what I remember most was the connections between people. We reached out to each other to see how we could help, offering hands-on cleanup, referrals to reliable contractors, and lots of emotional support. As our area ground to a near-halt in the aftermath, we remembered to be more patient and compassionate. We took lots of deep breaths and felt gratitude for the opportunity to recover and go on.

The old superstition that bad things happen in “three’s” seemed to be a predictor by the time we hit the last weekend in October. There we were on that Shabbat, celebrating a lovely bat mitzvah watching heavy, wet snow steadily fall throughout the day. It was beautiful. Like the earthquake, it took us by surprise, except this time, the awakening to the surprise was in slow motion. We had heard it could snow, but nobody took it seriously since it had been a temperate autumn until then. The leaves were still on the trees and it had just been 68 degrees a few days earlier; no way this could be a snow event worthy of worry.

We were wrong. I marveled at the calm of the bat mitzvah celebrants – if it had been December, the weather forecast would have created a flurry of activity, trying to decide whether or not to proceed. The party would surely have been postponed, or very sparsely and briefly attended. A foot of snow grinds all activity to a halt around here. But as this accumulation coated the trees, people smiled at the beauty, grateful that it was only October, and couldn’t really so bad as to stop the celebration. People were happy to be with one another.

As we left, we learned that we had miscalculated. It wasn’t so much that the snow itself made roads impassable this time—it was that the heavily laden trees couldn’t withstand the onslaught. Huge trees and limbs began gracefully falling by the dozens, then the hundreds, and then the thousands. The passageways home were blocked on many, if not most streets. We all struggled to get home. Some people had no way to get to their homes and had to find alternate shelter at hotels or with friends.

And then the power went out. Across our area tens of thousands of homes and businesses lost power for many days. Schools were closed, in some areas for a whole week, and even more in the worst areas. Live electrical wires were hanging across roads and driveways and many streets were blocked, making for crisis conditions. Many said that this freak storm dwarfed the impact of the recent hurricane (though folks who were flooded out in August might not have agreed).

What did we do? We reached out to one another, once again asking each other how we could help. Some helped neighbors and friends clear fallen trees, others offered shelter, many offered emotional support.

My house was amazingly spared of power outages both times. The necessary tree removal awaiting us is one thing; my friends living without power in the cold snap that followed the storm was another. We tried frantically to contact the members of our community, with limited success. Some spent the week at hotels or with out of town family, while working parents endured difficult commutes. Even the trains didn’t run for days – there were too many trees and wires down across the tracks. Many people remained in cold, dark houses, for a variety of reasons. But amidst the stress of this situation, there was a loving warmth that began to radiate as we found each other and shared space and support.

My husband and I hosted friends and then some congregants during that difficult week. It was a time for meaningful connection and tremendous appreciation for the value of caring relationships. Folks came to the synagogue to get warm or use the electricity, and the greatest resource we could share: caring. People complained to each other, shared their tales of woe, and then we reminded one another to be grateful for the precious gift of life. Yes, it was difficult, but it taught us about what is most important – not our things, but our connections.

We can be so fragmented these days – constantly on our computers and our phones, often rushing from one place to the next for activities that fill our days, and stress our souls. Ironically, all this social networking can separate us from our deepest selves, and from each other. These three unusual natural events reminded us that life is first and foremost about weaving connections between each other. When we came together on the Shabbat following the storm, we prayed with gusto, hugged one another, and thanked our Creator for the opportunity to care for one another, and to go forward enriched by the experience.

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