Before Hurricane Sandy, the Howard Beach Judea Center was having a mini-renaissance. Armed with a new head rabbi, the synagogue nestled in the residential community the Rockwood Park section of Howard Beach was looking optimistically to the future.
Then Jamaica Bay came to the door.
The temple on 162nd Avenue and 90th Street suffered considerable damage from Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge on Oct. 29. Up to 3 feet of water surged into the temple’s attached sanctuary and first floor, destroying offices, the kitchen, classrooms in the adjacent school and many of the temple’s prayer books that were stored in a closet. Left with no lights or heat, the school had to close for two weeks and the temple had to undergo a massive, and expensive, cleaning.
But even while the lights are back on and the building is warm again, the financial cost of the devastation may be more than the small Conservative Jewish temple can bear.
“We are in dire need of help,” said Lisa Mason, who helps run the synagogue and the school. “We lost our kitchen, the toys for the students, chairs, tables, everything. I don’t want to have to close.”
Mason’s mother, Dorie Pearlman, is organizing a concert to raise funds for the synagogue and its school on Saturday, Dec. 1. The concert will feature the temple’s rabbi and cantor, Rabbi George Hirschfeld, and a buffet cooked by Pearlman.
The intimate temple with its small stained glass windows and dark wood interior still carried a whiff of the stagnant water that flooded it three weeks ago. The main sanctuary is cleared out, the tables and chairs that used to populate it in a pile in the backyard, where a swing set and toys also lay destroyed in a heap on the lawn.
“The kids keep asking me, ‘when can we go on the swings?’” Mason said.
In the hallways leading to the classrooms where, more than two weeks after the storm, the 28 schoolchildren were finally celebrating Halloween, the buckling linoleum floors creaked when they walked on them. On the side of a closet in the main office, a grimy line marks the level reached by the flood.
“Because we don’t have a basement, the water came right into the first floor,” Mason explained. “It flooded everything.”
The front wall of the synagogue will have to be gutted, she said.
Though representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency came to the temple last Friday morning, they can be of no help because FEMA does not give money to nonprofits, but came to assess the damage.
The synagogue’s kitchen was destroyed by the storm, and new appliances will be required. A new boiler arrived last week. Many of the prayer books stored in a closet near the sanctuary were destroyed and Mason said they needed to be disposed of in a manner adhering to Jewish tradition.
“We have to have them taken away and buried,” she said. “And that’s another expense.”
With no help from FEMA or insurance, the synagogue is bearing the financial brunt from its own pockets. Mason said the teachers at the school are not being paid while the temple tries to figure out a financial solution.
Even with the devastation, the center is playing host to some schoolchildren from the Jewish community in Neponsit in the Rockaways displaced by the storm.
“We have to do what we need to do to help out,” Mason said.
The Howard Beach Judea Center is the oldest synagogue in Howard Beach and the only one serving the Conservative sect of Judaism. The other major synagogue in Howard Beach, the larger Rockwood Park Jewish Center across from St. Helen Roman Catholic Church, also suffered damage.
The center does open its doors to other dominations. Mason said the temple often serves the neighborhood’s significant Catholic population, some of whose members come to pray in the temple on Saturday mornings.
“We welcome everybody here,” Mason said. “We’re a community center.”
Tickets to the Dec. 1 concert are $20 and reservations can be made with Pearlman at (718) 835-2298. The show starts at 7 p.m. and will take place at the synagogue.