The Arty Semite

Author Blog: Hurricane Sandy and Big Government

By Shmuly Yanklowitz

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


The Rabbis teach (Ta’anit 11a) that “at a time when the community is suffering, no one should say, ‘I will go home, eat, drink, and be at peace with myself.’” To effectively aid those who are suffering, we need the cooperation and collaboration of each and every individual. We need strong individuals, effective non-profits, and committed states. However, we also need to recognize the most powerful collective body available to address the suffering. In our society, the mechanism that represents the people is the government, and it must be effective. Government does not always have to be big to be effective, but oftentimes it does, especially when responding to disasters on a large scale.

Hurricane Sandy, which struck the east coast in October 2012, was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record and the second-costliest, behind only Hurricane Katrina. At least 253 people were killed and an estimated $65.6 billion was lost due to damage and business interruption. For weeks, many in this, the wealthiest country in the world, were suddenly lacking the basic necessities of life, such as shelter, heat, power and water. The most dramatic damage occurred in southern New Jersey and the New York City metropolitan area. In New Jersey, the historic Seaside Heights roller coaster was carried out into the Atlantic Ocean, where its tangled ruins remain today. Video of the famous Jersey shore area revealed miles of destroyed boardwalks and beaches that had virtually disappeared, along with hundreds of demolished houses and boats. To the north, nearly 100 people died within a 65-mile radius of New York City as a result of Hurricane Sandy. Manhattan had never before flooded, but Hurricane Sandy’s waters were nearly 4 feet higher than the city’s 10-foot walls. Scores were killed in their homes on the coasts of Staten Island and Queens. Some ignored mandatory orders to evacuate, others were elderly and infirm, but all were victimized by a flood surge that filled houses with water within minutes, allowing no escape. Others were killed by falling branches and trees. Millions of people were without power, and received little-to-no information from their utility companies about when power might be restored. The catastrophe was reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and many feared a repeat of the government’s feeble response to that storm might occur again.

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Coney Island Before and After Sandy

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Ever since I first read John Kasson’s “Amusing the Million,” a vividly drawn historical account of Coney Island’s singular appeal as an urban “dreamland,” I’ve had a soft spot for that Brooklyn neighborhood, whose streets are called “Surf,” and “Mermaid,” and “Neptune.” In this, I’m not alone. So, too, did Woody Allen, I.B. Singer, Molly Picon and Ric Burns.

Sarah Ackerman

Woody Allen, for his part, set a hilarious scene in “Annie Hall” in the shadow of a Coney Island rollercoaster, while some of I.B. Singer’s literary imaginings took shape against the area’s penchant for spectacle, both natural and man-made. Molly Picon, in turn, sang buoyantly in Yiddish of one of Coney Island’s most celebrated amenities: the hot dog. Ric Burns trained his sights on the off-kilter, dreamy quality of one of America’s most famous playgrounds, especially in its electrifying late 19th and early 20th century incarnation, giving rise to his very first documentary, Coney Island.

More recently, the Coney Island History Project was established in 2004 to collect and preserve the stories of people who not only visited Coney Island on occasion but also called it home. Appropriately enough, it set up a portable recording booth on the boardwalk to capture these memories.

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Museum of Jewish Heritage Saved from Sandy

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Of all the Jewish institutions in New York, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, found itself in the most vulnerable position as Hurricane Sandy bore down on the city Monday night. It was thought that the museum, located right on the edge of New York Harbor, in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, was sure to be severely damaged by swells roaring over the sea wall.

Wikimedia Commons

To everyone’s surprise, MJH came through the storm intact, despite the water’s rising to an unprecedented 13.8 feet. Associate Director Abby Spilka said it was “a miracle” that the building and exhibitions, save for some water damage in the basement, came through unscathed. Spilka attributed this to shear luck relating to the museum’s position on the uneven landfill underneath Battery Park. Whereas nearby areas were completely flooded, it appears that the specific physical placement of the building prevented it from suffering a similar fate.

Having suffered from being merely blocks away from Ground Zero on September 11, 2001, MJH takes emergency preparedness extremely seriously. “Irene was a perfect dress rehearsal for us,” Spilka said referring to the precautions the museum took in August 2011, and which were repeated last Sunday in anticipation of Sandy. Staff dismantled and removed all the artifacts exhibited on the first floor and moved them to a higher floor in the building. While the dismantling took six hours, Spilka expects it will take three days to reinstall the exhibitions.

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