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For Florida Jews battered by Hurricane Ian, Yom Kippur offers community, and renewal

In devastated southwest of the state, synagogues adapt their services — sometimes drastically; ‘People are shattered and in need both of resources and supplies, but also of hope’

Rabbi Yitzchok Minkowicz supervises the pantry inside the Chabad Lubavitch of Southwest Florida, Monday, October 3, 2022, in Fort Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
Rabbi Yitzchok Minkowicz supervises the pantry inside the Chabad Lubavitch of Southwest Florida, Monday, October 3, 2022, in Fort Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Even though a destructive hurricane tore through his community just days earlier, nothing was going to stop Rabbi Yitzchok Minkowicz from holding prayer services Tuesday night for the start of the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Throughout a southwest Florida devastated by Hurricane Ian, Jews prepared to hold worship services for Yom Kippur, a day in which they fast for 24 hours and ask forgiveness for the wrongs they have committed during the year, although many were doing so with plans drastically modified by the storm.

Some congregations were skipping in-person attendance for the all-important Kol Nidre service Tuesday evening out of concern it would be too dangerous to drive at night with debris piled up on roads and traffic lights out. Others were holding it online.

At Minkowicz’s synagogue, the religiously traditional Chabad Lubavitch of Southwest Florida in Fort Myers, members planned a community dinner before fasting to start at sunset Tuesday, with the help of caterers from South Florida, on the other side of the state.

Some buildings on the 5-acre (2-hectare) campus were flooded. But the main building, where 50 or so people sheltered during the hurricane, was comparatively unscathed because of its higher elevation.

Power returned Sunday night, and the campus had turned into a community center of sorts, with food trucks and a food pantry. A large tent was erected in the parking lot where members of the synagogue — or anyone from the community — could stop by for a meal.

Mitchell Gottlieb arrives with supplies from Miami Beach for Chabad Lubavitch, Monday, October 3, 2022, in Fort Myers, Fla. The synagogue has received supplies from all over Florida to help its members and neighbors. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

“The most important thing we have is to make God happy,” Minkowicz said. “If God is happy, everything works out.”

In need of resources, and of community

At Temple Beth El in Fort Myers, congregants planned to have in-person Yom Kippur services Wednesday, with Kol Nidre services available only online Tuesday night. However, plans had been in flux at the congregation, which is part of the progressive Reform movement, since utility trucks were using the parking lot as a rest area for utility worker breaks. The trucks were expected to be gone by Wednesday’s services.

Electricity was restored to the synagogue, whose property was littered with fallen trees and debris, but traffic lights were still down in the neighborhood, so Rabbi Nicole Luna said congregants should consider their safety when deciding whether to attend in person. Some of the congregation’s more than 250 families lost their homes.

“People are shattered and in need both of resources and supplies, but also of community and hope,” Luna said.

Rabbi Lawrence Dermer and his wife, Robin, decided not to hold a Kol Nidre service Tuesday night at their synagogue, Shalom Life Center, out of concerns about the safety of their congregants. The evening service marks the start of the holiday with a chanted prayer asking to be released from all obligations that can’t be fulfilled.

“We didn’t want to encourage anyone to go out after dark. The roads are hazardous and in some areas there’s still a curfew,” said Lawrence Dermer, who leads the congregation, which welcomes members from all Jewish backgrounds.

A family serves themselves lunch at the Chabad Lubavitch of Southwest Florida, Monday, October 3, 2022, in Fort Myers, Fla. The synagogue has been transformed into a full-fledged community center with food trucks and a pantry. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Shalom Life Center planned to hold daytime services Wednesday but was skipping holding a traditional community “break fast” Wednesday evening, when Jews indulge with bagels, lox, whitefish and other staples following 24 hours of not eating. That will be postponed for a few weeks, until the community gets out of the crisis mode from the storm, Lawrence Dermer said.

The fragility of life

The Fort Myers metro area has around 7,500 Jews, and the Naples area further south has an additional 7,500, according to estimates published in the 2020 American Jewish Year Book. Compared with other parts of the state, the Jewish community in southwest Florida is relatively new, with the oldest congregation, Temple Beth El, formed only in 1954 with 22 families.

Rather than making them question their religious convictions, the ferocious storm has renewed the faith of many members of their congregation, said Lawrence Dermer and his wife. During the 10 days between the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, Jews traditionally say to one another, “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life,” in what is almost an entreaty that they be blessed with another year of life.

“Yom Kippur is about the fragility of life. If anything, we have seen with Ian how precarious life is,” said Robin Dermer. “The meaning of Yom Kippur, of renewal and connection to God, will be deeper, not lessened.”

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