It was Friday morning as Floridians were bracing for Hurricane Irma, when Rabbi Mendy Dubrowski, director of Tampa’s Chabad Young Professionals chapter, received a call from his colleague. RabbiYossi Katz of Tenafly, New Jersey was concerned about a member of his community who had entered hospice care in Tampa. Would Dubrowski stay in touch with him?
Dubrowski soon learned that the man had passed away in a storm shelter after the hospice was evacuated. The Chabad rabbi moved quickly, making arrangements with a local Jewish funeral home to claim the body and store it with the help of generators. As soon as the storm passed he was transported home for burial.
In the hours after Irma tore through the city, Rabbi Dubrowski assembled groups of volunteers: community members, students, young professionals and others would coordinate debris removal groups, each with a designated Chabad representative and a professional landscaper to lead them and assess the needs of the homes they visit.
While a majority of his community—the rabbi puts the number at somewhere around seventy-five percent—evacuated Tampa before the hurricane hit, there are yet many people stranded and in desperate need of assistance. Chabad representatives have received hundreds of calls from family members looking to make contact, and are focusing on conducting safety checks, particularly for elderly individuals who have lost power.
The need for food is another priority. “At the moment we are preparing meals at Chabad centers free of charge,” Rabbi Mendy Gutnick of Parkland, F.L., says. Some of these Chabad centers are among the few buildings in the affected area that have regained power, and are also serving as cooling centers; many residents are stranded in temperatures reaching the high 90’s without working air conditioners. “Right now, it’s so hot that it’s dangerous for families with young children to stay home,” Gutnick notes.
The relief effort is part of a greater statewide initiative by Chabad emissaries all across Florida to coordinate resources for distributing food, providing shelter, and setting up help hotlines. Spreadsheets for the United Chabad Florida Relief Efforts “let everyone know who’s doing what in each region,” explains Gutnick.
In Hollywood, Deerfield Beach, and other locations, Chabad rabbis are delivering food to the homebound; one Rabbi Yossi Goldwag delivered some 85 meals today. In some cases, individuals have opened up their restaurants or private kitchens to provide meals, with Chabad representatives working to connect them to those in need.
“We launched a statewide effort to give as much help as we can receive—not only financially, but with hands on the ground,” Gutnick says. “One rabbi can deliver eighty meals, but if people can help package, deliver, and set up some of the meal facilities, we can reach so much more.”
In Naples, Chabad Rabbi Fishel Zaklos and his wife Etti have seen both their home and their Chabad House damaged by the storm. Still, the rabbi and his family are out on the streets of Naples providing assistance to locals with the limited resources available to them.
“We want to get people over to Naples to assist the Chabad representatives, so we’re sending down a truck with basic food and relief items,” Gutnick says.
Apart from from the dedicated hotline that has been set up for the relief effort, “every Chabad center has created some kind of hotline system to accommodate people who are calling in.” Across social media, Chabad emissaries are posting offers to help those in need.
“As we continue to pray for those still in harm’s way, we want to be sure that you are all okay. Please let us know how you fared,” Zaklos wrote on Facebook.
Rabbi Eli Lipskar is leading the relief efforts from Miami. “Below is a list of Chabad centers that will be serving dinner tonight,” he posted. “If you have a loved one that needs to be checked on, or someone that needs a meal delivered, please let me know.”
In South Broward, Rabbi Raphael Tennenhaus blasted an email to his community. “If you know of anyone in need of assistance, please text me.” The South Broward Chabad branch has arranged for the delivery of dozens of meals to senior citizens and others who lost power, and is helping people obtain temporary shelter, as well as food and medicine.
“Ultimately,” Dubrowski notes, “it will take everyone to help us get our communities cleaned up and back on our feet.”