Small Towns, Big Hearts

When people ask me where I am from, or more specifically, where I grew up, I almost always say, “Newport, Rhode Island.” Most people have heard of it, as it is a famous tourist destination and home to the oldest synagogue in the United States.

 

But I’m not really from Newport, it’s just an easier point of reference.  Although I lived in Newport until I was seven, I spent most of my childhood and adolescence in Middletown, the small community on Aquidneck Island that is just to the north of Newport.

 

Unlike Newport, Middletown isn’t well known. When I was growing up there, it was mostly farmland, where my friends’ parents tended dairy cows, grew potatoes, and raised nursery stock plants and shrubs for landscaping. Other parents worked for the Navy, which had a large base in Newport until 1972, or at the shipyard that supported the lobstermen and fishermen. They were small-town lawyers and accountants, like my dad. Everyone knew everyone else and had gone to school together for generations. 

 

We couldn’t have been more different than the wealthy summer people or even the tourists from all over the world who came to our island. We were just small town, hard-working people, not fancy, not glamorous.

 

Of course, what sets Middletown apart is the water. You can see the ocean or the Sakonnet River or Narragansett Bay from almost anywhere in town. There are beautiful beaches — Second Beach is one of the most beautiful on the East Coast, if I do say so myself.

 

With the water and the ocean come the threats of hurricanes. My grandparents and great-uncles and aunts told the story of the devastation from the Great Hurricane of 1938. My father risked his neck as a young man to get from one end of the island to the other during the 1956 hurricane, just to make sure my mother, his fiancée at that point, was okay and to bring her home to my grandparents from her work. I remember waiting to be evacuated during one of the hurricanes in the 1960s. Every time, we rebuilt, collected ourselves, relied on ourselves, and moved on.

 

This is one of the reasons I am so struck by the story of the small community of Union Beach, N.J.  Because it is a small town very much like Middletown. Union Beach is less then 45 minutes from the Greater MetroWest area. It is on the Jersey Shore, but it isn’t a vacation town. It is a town of hard-working people who live there year round. And it was more devastated by Hurricane Sandy than anything anyone in Middletown — or almost anywhere else — has ever seen. 

And Union Beach needs our help. Like the people I grew up with, these are not folks who like to ask for help. As Americans, we are raised to value the virtue of self-reliance. But this is bigger than what this small town can handle. 

Some 200 homes in Union Beach were destroyed. Of the remaining homes, 85 percent sustained flood damage to the inside of their homes. There were no fatalities in the town, but the size of the storm surge was unexpected and unprecedented. Portions of the town were under 10 feet of water. The municipality lost 14 police cars, 3 ambulances, and 4 fire trucks.  While these are words on paper, this video shows you the devastation up close.

In the wake of the storm, another small town reached out to see if it could help. Madison is also a small, bucolic New Jersey town, with a charming Main Street, townspeople who know one another and look out for each other. Madison Borough Mayor Robert Conley and Borough staff visited Union Beach on Thursday, November 29 to meet with Union Beach representatives.

On Tuesday, December 4, Madison Borough officials approached Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, asking us to partner with them to assist Union Beach. On Wednesday, December 5, Federation representatives took a tour of the devastation in Union Beach and began to provide aid.

 

What’s the connection between Union Beach and Greater MetroWest, other than that Madison Borough knew that we existed, knew our reputation as an organization with all kinds of resources to bear? And, quite frankly, what’s so Jewish about Union Beach?

 

I put this question to former Federation president Gary Aidekman, whose tenure was notable for bringing a renewed emphasis on areyvut — Jewish mutual responsibility — to the forefront of all that we do. Here’s what Gary had to say:

 

“Jews have a very special obligation to help each other. That does not, however, mean we can ignore the plight of others beyond the Jewish community. Super Storm Sandy was a catastrophe for many living along the New York/New Jersey shoreline regardless of religion or ethnicity. We should help...and we should do it as effectively as we can.

 

“By selecting Union Beach, a blue collar community with limited resources, Greater MetroWest can make a big difference through marshaling not only our financial resources but our emergency response infrastructure and our network of caring donors and volunteers. We can make a meaningful contribution of dollars, needed materials for rebuilding, and hours of hands on volunteer assistance.”

 

And this Sunday, just before Christmas, we have one of our first opportunities to provide that “hands on” volunteer help. We have organized a day of service there on Sunday, December 23, from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. We will primarily be helping with salvage operations. As our current Federation president, Lori Klinghoffer asks, “What better way to spend your time than by providing concrete assistance to those who desperately need help? What better way of expressing our Jewish values of chesed, acts of loving-kindness, and tikkun olam, repairing the world?” And that’s what’s so Jewish about Union Beach.

 

All of the details for Sunday’s effort can be found on the Federation website as well as many other ways you can help with Hurricane Sandy relief. Many, many thanks to Stacey Brown, who is doing an amazing job coordinating our volunteer efforts, and who can be reached at sbrown@jfedgmw.org or (973) 929-3027 if you have any questions.

 

This will be an ongoing effort; this is not a recovery that will happen overnight and we intend to stick with the people of Union Beach and see them through. As in Israel, once we take on a partnership with a community, you can’t get rid of us! And speaking of Israel, not at all surprisingly, there is an effort starting in Israel, through Rabbi Joel Soffin, formerly from Greater MetroWest, and his foundation, Jewish Helping Hands, to bring together 20 people from Israel and New Jersey to do a week-long service project in Union Beach, building homes, building connections, and basing their work on Jewish text study.   

 

I can’t write about community and need and response without writing about one other small, close-knit community. Right after Thanksgiving, I had the opportunity to speak to the campaign leadership of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. On the ride up to Hartford you pass the exit for Newtown. I’ve been there, and I thought to myself, “What a charming town that is. We should take a ride up there.” Well, now Newtown is in all of our hearts and minds and we have all taken the emotional ride to Newtown. How we all wish we could help there as well. 

 

Yesterday, my friend Lisa Fishman, who had invited me to speak in Hartford, shared a very moving piece by Michael Johnston, the CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Hartford. Here is what Michael had to say about community:

 

“In this day and age, some say that the idea of community is passé, is no longer relevant in a world that lives online. I beg to differ. As a people, sadly, we know what it means to live with unfathomable loss and for thousands of years we have survived by leaning on our faith and on each other. We know what it means to have a community that stands ready to provide a shoulder to lean on, a meal when eating no longer seems relevant, and companionship when we see no reason to go on. It is no accident that as a people we are not allowed to mourn alone. Where the legs of one may no longer be strong enough to stand, the arms of others can make sure we do not fall.”

 

Our hearts are with the community of Newtown, and we can take action in Union Beach. I hope to see you in Union Beach on Sunday.

 

Leslie

 

 

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