SPRINGFIELD – On June 1, Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz was leaving the offices of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in West Springfield with Dr. Erica Brown, the guest speaker for that evening’s Florence Melton Mini-School graduation.
After their meeting at Grinspoon, also attended by Federation Director Meredith Dragon, Katz and Dr. Brown drove over the Memorial Bridge at around 4:25 p.m. – mere minutes before the deadly tornado hit the same area, killing four and leaving a path of destruction through Springfield. Dragon had left the area just moments earlier.
Katz, a native of Chicago, had lived in Kansas for several years, but never experienced a tornado like this.
“I was in Kansas but I had never been as close to a tornado as I was here, ever,” said Rabbi Katz, who still cannot believe how close she was to the storm. “I have been saying to myself, ‘how did I just obliviously do what I needed to do on Wednesday afternoon and not know what was going on?’ How does that happen?”
Neither Katz nor Dragon was injured or suffered any damage to their cars or homes, despite their close calls with Mother Nature. But the staff at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation was not so lucky. Still at their desks when the storm hit, HGF staffers ran to the basement of their building on Union Street for cover from the storm. Luckily, no one was injured.
“Our offices were damaged, many homes and buildings around us and many of our cars,” said Joanna Ballantine, executive director of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.
Last week, while HGF’s building on Union Street was being repaired, the office was closed and staffers worked from home. The offices reopened on June 14.
“Our office has been repaired and we are back in the building…” Ballantine said. “We were all thankfully safe during the storm. We are grateful for all of the support of the greater Jewish community under the direction of Meredith Dragon, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusets.”
Indeed, the Jewish Federation and many other Jewish organizations sprang into action to provide assistance to those affected. The Federation began accepting donations immediately for victims of the tornado, raising nearly $7,000 by last Friday. “As we started raising money I got word that United Way had started an immediate campaign too,” Dragon said. “So I reached out to the person who was organizing the campaign for the United Way and we were able to pool our resources. The United Way is working with the Mayor’s office and all of the other volunteer organizations that are assisting to help determine where all of the basic human needs are so that the money can be given for direct services. It just didn’t seem like we needed to reinvent the wheel – but there are people in the community who wanted to give, and we wanted to make sure that the money was going to the people who needed help the most, and that is what United Way is doing.”
Early on, United Way announced a $25,000 matching grant, for which the Federation helped raise funds. By Tuesday morning of last week, $28,000 had been raised toward the match. The United Way has set a fundraising goal of $100,000 and with the matching grant, they are already half way there.
“I think people want to feel that they are doing their part and that the Jewish community is doing its part, so it has been great,” Dragon said. “The Federation has been able to step up as the community convenor for the Jewish community and really take the lead role in making sure everyone is galvanizing their efforts together to insure that we take care of the community.”
All over the Jewish community, organizations have worked tirelessly to help those affected by the tornado.
The Jewish Community Center offered physical space to some organizations around the area whose offices were damaged in the storm, and will offer its campus for some summer camp programs that were displaced by damage caused by the tornado.
Jewish Family Service began fielding calls immediately from some of their clients who were in need after the tornado, and served as triage and contact agency for all Jewish families and individuals affected. JFS’s Jewish Community Urgent Response Program was able to provide some limited emergency cash, as well as social service support.
As soon as the storm hit, Rachel’s Table, the Jewish Federation’s hunger relief program, began an expedited food drive and food delivery just to support local agencies assisting families affected by the storm. Donated food was dropped off at several points, including the Federation office at the Springfield JCC and schools around Springfield. In just the first few days after the storm, more than 5,000 pounds of food was collected by Rachel’s Table, and the agency continues to collect more food for the relief effort.
At the same time, students at Heritage Academy also began collecting baby supplies – items desperately needed by families in Springfield who were hit by the storm. Students and families from Lander-Grinspoon Academy and Congregation B’nai Israel came together to sell flower bouquets, the proceeds of which went to aid victims of the tornado.
“The three basic needs that people have are funds for agencies to be able to do their work, food, and baby supplies, and as a community, we have really stepped up to provide those things,” Dragon said.
Jewish Geriatric Services in Longmeadow became a command post the night of the tornado because of its voluntary participation in Massmap (Massachusetts Mutual Aid Planning). Massmap establishes detailed action plans based on a mutual commitment among participating nursing homes, assisted living residences and residential care facilities to help each other as needed in the time of a disaster.
“We drill for a night like this twice a year,” said Wade Williams, director of Safety and Security and Senior Engineer at JGS. “We were ready for whatever we would have to do.” Massmap works in conjuction with Russell Phillips, an emergency and fire preparedness consulting firm for healthcare facilities.
Williams had gone home for the day when he was contacted about the tornado and returned to JGS to put the emergency plan into action.
“We called every nursing home and assisted living facility in all four regions of the state to see how they were, if they needed help, what we could do,” said Williams. If they couldn’t reach a facility, police and fire departments were alerted. We had our whole staff ready to accommodate any residents from other facilities if necessary.”
JGS arranged for batteries and flashlights to be delivered to a nursing home in Springfield and were prepared to offer laundry services to a nursing home in Wilbraham, but they got the power back on before that was necessary. JGS was lauded for its emergency assistance.
“We want to thank the Region 1 volunteers on the Steering Committee for staffing the Regional Control Center at Jewish Geriatric Services in Longmeadow until 1 a.m. before standing down. This was a substantial regional disaster,” read a blast email from the Massachusetts Dept of Public Health’s Health and Homeland Alert Network the next day.
Now that the storm is over and relief efforts are still going strong, people in the community are still dealing with the emotional aftermath.
Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro of Sinai Temple has been helping to organize interfaith efforts since the storm. An interfaith service was held at Christ Church a week after the tornado and another was held earlier this week at the Mass Mutual Center.
“Yesterday I spent the morning with an interfaith group of clergy and representatives of Governor Patrick touring sites where the tornado struck Springfield,” Rabbi Shapiro said in a message sent out to his congregants. “We didn’t see every site, but we did see enough to be awestruck and humbled.”
Shapiro asked congregants to brainstorm about how they can help in relief efforts which will eventually include reconstruction of areas destroyed by the storm.
Rabbi Amy Katz agreed that the relief efforts will no doubt be long-term. She has instructed the co-chairs of Beth El’s social action committee to concentrate on ways that the congregation can assist victims in the long run. But she said she is also still reeling from the close call with Mother Nature.
“I’m struggling with the theological piece of it because I think that there are two kinds of responses. One is the ‘let’s go get people the food and clothing and the resources they need so they can rebuild their lives,’ and that is really important,” said Rabbi Katz. “The other piece I am grappling with is what is the theology of this. What do we believe about God when you are in your house and it isn’t touched, but the house next to you is? And how do we understand Mother Nature in relation to God? People have to ask and consider that question. I think we are all feeling very vulnerable and fragile after the tornado.”
Those interested in helping the victims of the tornado can send a monetary contribution to the United Way via The Jewish Federation of Western Massachusett, 1160 Dickinson St., Springfield, MA 01108.