Blog Post : An Ark of Sanctuary, by Rabbinic Intern Nikki DeBlosi

An Ark of Sanctuary, by Rabbinic Intern Nikki DeBlosi | Anonymous (not verified) | Nov 5, 2012

The cavernous brick ceiling vaulted over us like the roof of some massive ark, filled to capacity with refugees from a deluge, a storm that raged with winds and with surging waters that would not relent. Not forty days and forty nights, thank G-d, but a storm that devastated the world we had known. This was the Park Slope Armory YMCA just days after Superstorm Sandy.


On Friday evening and again on Saturday morning, I and two of my colleagues from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion led Shabbat services for Jews and non-Jews evacuated to the Armory from their nursing facilities and assisted residencies in Rockaway and other flooded neighborhoods. A volunteer “wellness coordinator” had contacted my home shul, Congregation Beth Elohim, which has been and continues to be a center for volunteer and relief efforts in Brooklyn and beyond. Our clergy team—Rabbi Andy Bachman, Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein, Rabbi Marc Katz, and Cantor Joshua Breitzer—have been working around the clock, along with a dedicated staff and dozens upon dozens of community volunteers. Our community has prepared and delivered meals, collected and distributed water and batteries and other much-needed supplies, and offered words of comfort and hope to so many people stranded in their ruined homes or displaced to shelters around the city. Unable to lead the services themselves as they attended to the ongoing needs of our spiritual community, CBE’s clergy reached out to rabbinical and cantorial students in the neighborhood, empowering us to bring some Shabbat rest and joy to the evacuees at the Armory.


Imagine creating the rest of Shabbat on an indoor track in a room echoing with sound: confused shouts and cries of disoriented patients, joyful noises of reunion and relief as people are able to contact loved ones via cell phone, volunteers being oriented to the sights and smells of what is basically a medical operation as well as a residential facility. Rows upon rows of army-style cots (just canvas stretched over metal frames) line the room. Residents from nursing homes and mental healthcare facilities lie on these makeshift beds; there is no privacy, no space for personal effects. Indeed, in many case, people have no personal effects to speak of: they came here with the clothes on their backs. Yet Shabbat in that room, with a motley minyan gathered together on folding chairs, was the most joyful and grateful Shabbat I have ever experienced.


Shabbat, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, does not depend on space: it is a sanctuary in time. And so it simply didn’t matter: it didn’t matter that we sat on folding chairs on an indoor track at what is normally a YMCA sports facility. What mattered was that we created a sacred moment in time: a moment for holiness, a moment to invite in the Presence of G-d, a moment to breathe and be reminded that, behold! we are alive! Unable to light candles because of fire code laws, we kindled the spark of Divinity in each of our souls, visualizing that light filling the time and the space of our Shabbat service. We pictured ourselves on the hills of Tzfat or the shores of Hertzelia. We imagined that the canopy of brick above was instead a blanket of stars. One man remarked how beautiful it was, fleeing the storm, to look up and see stars, even over New York City. Beauty in a moment of chaos: a powerful image for our Shabbat in that modern-day Ark.


And so we gathered a little closer together. We sang and we blessed. We laughed and we cried. We prayed for healing. And on Shabbat morning, we shared not the traditional nissim b’chol yom (miracles of every day), but our own blessings of thanks. “I am thankful that I was able to hear my mother’s voice over my cell phone, and to know that she and my sister are alive, and safe.” “I am thankful that I got these new sweatpants, because I lost all my clothing in the storm.” “I am thankful that the Jewish people is alive and celebrating, after all that has befallen us, up to even this storm.”


A wave washed over me, but this time not the waters of the Hudson or the East River or New York Bay or the Atlantic, itself displaced from its normal position by the winds of Sandy. A wave of gratitude and humility, a wave of hope, a wave of belief in the real Truth of the fact that each of these people—these strangers with whom I was so blessed to spend my sacred Shabbat—is created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of the Divine. I got to experience a moment of that Divinity, there beneath the arch of the Park Slope Armory, and for that I am grateful.


Help and hope will be needed in the coming weeks. Please check the Bronfman Center’s website for ongoing information on how you can respond—with your wallet, with your hands, with your prayers, and with your hearts.