JTA — Rabbi Adam Starr was returning from an emergency trip to Houston, where he had helped a colleague clean up his synagogue after Harvey swept through that city, when his phone began to buzz. Jews from Florida had begun contacting Starr’s Atlanta synagogue, looking for a safe haven from Hurricane Irma.
So on Tuesday, right after Starr got back from pulling out drywall and moving holy books in Texas, he began organizing his own relief effort back home. By Thursday night, he and a team of local volunteers were sitting around folding tables in Beth Jacob, a suburban Atlanta Orthodox synagogue, each working on laptops to coordinate shelter for Florida Jews.
“We were starting to get inquiries about Irma — two, three, four people asking about coming for Shabbat,” said Starr, rabbi of Young Israel of Toco Hills, near Beth Jacob. “We realized, this is going to be a real need, and instead of dealing with a one-off, let’s open our community.”
Irma, a Category Four storm, has been called one of the worst hurricanes in decades. It swept through the Caribbean this week and is expected to make landfall in Florida late Saturday.
The number of families seeking refuge in Atlanta’s Orthodox community is up to 250 — and growing. The community has turned into a landing spot for religious Jews from Florida seeking home hospitality, a local synagogue and meals for Shabbat, funded by the Orthodox Union. Starr estimates that about 600 Orthodox families live in the area; now, many of them are hosting impromptu guests Friday night.
“What’s been going on for the past 36 hours is making shidduchim,” Starr said, using a Hebrew word for matches. “We’re the largest [nearby] Orthodox community that’s not directly in the path of the hurricane. We can do a tremendous kindness in assisting these people who want to get out of harm’s way.”
The Orthodox synagogues are two of almost a dozen Atlanta Jewish institutions that have pitched in to help Irma evacuees from Florida — which has one of the country’s largest Jewish populations. Members of B’nai Torah, an Atlanta Conservative synagogue, are hosting about 150 people — including some non-Jews. On Saturday morning, a few dozen members of the Conservative Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center, on Florida’s coast, will attend services and lunch at B’nai Torah.
A few other synagogues have opened their doors, as have three nearby Jewish camps that are hosting evacuees. The campus Chabad at Georgia Tech is welcoming students from out-of-state, and the local Jewish Community Center is offering evacuees free passes. Jewish Family and Career Services has a hotline where evacuees experiencing trauma can talk to clinicians.
This time around, the rabbis aren’t sure how long they’ll have to host Floridians, though Heller estimates they’ll be in Atlanta at least until next Wednesday. And though Atlanta is inland, there’s a chance Irma could bring damage there too. Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, are also in its path.
“All of Florida is trying to come to Atlanta at the moment, and Savannah and Charleston are close behind,” said B’nai Torah Rabbi Joshua Heller, who was up at 1:30 a.m. Friday inflating air mattresses in his basement for evacuees.
This isn’t the first time Atlanta’s Jews have mobilized to help out-of-state hurricane victims. In 2005, says Melissa Miller, public relations manager of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, the community put together a similar effort to shelter Jewish victims of Hurricane Katrina as it hit New Orleans. Some of those evacuees never left Atlanta.
“We had whole families in the middle of the night who came to Atlanta, left all their belongings,” Miller said of Katrina. “There’s a tradition of loving-kindness and southern hospitality that all goes hand in hand. We’ve just always mobilized.”