EMT Gavy Friedson of Israel's United Hatzalah Rescue organization breaks amid Hurricane Irma's destruction while performing relief work in Key West. (Photo: Courtesy)

Holy Hurricane

Irma brought unexpected unity and friendship obscured by her destruction

[Miami] In September, when Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida as a category four storm, it was the first storm of that size to descend upon the state in more than 10-years.

Irma was a force to be reckoned with as the death toll in Florida quickly climbed to 42 and the power company, Florida Power and Light, took weeks to restore electricity state-wide.

Yet, while the storm left a trail of destruction, a group of Jewish students at the University of Miami found an unlikely remnant left in her wake: a celebration of the Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah – unlike any they had celebrated before.

Jewish New Year celebrations — a time for reflection symbolizing a new beginning to the Jewish people — were set to begin only days after the storm struck. And while events and normal scheduling came to a halt throughout the area devastated by winds and water, in Coral Gables where UM is located, it strangely brought the community together.

“In the Jewish New Year, everything is supposed to start off sweet…and I thought it really meant a lot to be back together to start this year off on the right foot,” Seth Manilove, president of University of Miami Hillel, an on-campus organization for Jewish students said.

Members of UM Hillel had planned to spend Rosh Hashanah at the Braman Miller Center on campus. But, the university campus was closed to students until after the holiday, presenting a challenge for the group.

“Once we were informed of this we were kindly offered to partner with UM Chabad for dinner and Temple Judea graciously gave us a space to host a private service led by Rabbi Lyle Rothman for Rosh Hashanah,” Carly Greenspan, the Director of Jewish Life at UM Hillel, said. “Chabad” — an ultra-Orthodox organization also serving the UM student body – and Temple Judea, a reform congregation, would normally not be expected to be on the same theological page. But Temple Judea is the only synagogue in Coral Gables and is located directly across the street from the University of Miami campus. With an obvious geographic connection, Rabbi Judith Siegal, the senior rabbi of Temple Judea, says the relationship goes even deeper.

“In a time when many college students do not affiliate with a synagogue…UM Hillel and Temple Judea are happy to work together to create many opportunities to engage with Jewish life for students of all ages and denominations,” she said.

Rabbi Siegal adds that the Temple Judea congregation was among those who were greatly impacted by the storm. She says there were three people in the community who had strokes just after the hurricane, which may or may not have been directly connected to stress.

Although campus closures were anything but convenient, students like Andrew Weinstock, a senior at the University of Miami, made it a point to return early after evacuating. He emphasized that it is one of the most important days of the year for him as a Jewish student.

“It was incredibly special to feel the unity around us especially when times are so challenging after Hurricane Irma and all of the other terrible things going on in the world,” he said.

Greenspan and other UM Hillel staff also highlighted the importance of celebrating Rosh Hashanah.

“Hillel always makes sure students have a place to celebrate the holidays, so even with everything that happened with Irma we made sure this year was no exception,” Greenspan said.

Although the storm presented a number of obstacles in celebrating Rosh Hashanah, it gave people a moment to reflect on the strength of their community.

“There’s something special about the Jewish people…every time we face adversity…we get right back up,” Manilove, a senior at the University of Miami, said, “Even though we weren’t able to celebrate the holiday in our normal space…we are still coming together as a big community…even though there were trying circumstances.”

For Andrea Vorlíček, a graduate student at the University of Miami, this was her first Rosh Hashanah. And for her having to cope with the inconveniences added meaning.

“I think it’s particularly important today…for people to experience events or talk to people of other religions in order to…build bridges to understand those who are different than us,” she said. “I loved how welcoming they were…it encouraged non-Jews like myself to attend more events that promote the ideas of peace, tolerance and acceptance.”

Both Temple Judea and The Braman Miller Center sustained no serious damage from the storm and
Students were back on campus just in time for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Kayla Haley is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.

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