Two Atlanta rabbis were flying back from Houston on Tuesday night after days of helping Hurricane Harvey victims when the text messages started.
The next day at noon, they had an operation underway to secure housing and food for hundreds of fellow Orthodox Jews fleeing the potentially catastrophic Hurricane Irma heading for South Florida.
By early Thursday afternoon, about 210 local families had agreed to house 600 of the 950 evacuees who requested help via an online sign-up, said Hillel Glazer, president of Young Israel synagogue in Toco Hill.
“We’re kind of in triage mode,” Glazer said.
Toco Hill is not only the hub of Atlanta’s Orthodox Jewish life, but it’s also the next such community inland and north of South Florida’s sizable Orthodox population.
And though waves of Floridians are escaping the peninsula ahead of the storm, these evacuees have other particular considerations.
They won’t run out and take anything off the grocery store shelves — food has to be kosher, meaning it adheres to strict Jewish dietary laws.
And then there’s the scheduling.
“These are people who want to stay in a place with people who observe the Sabbath the same way,” Glazer said.
Orthodox Jews aren’t allowed to do many things during their Sabbath — from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday — and that includes travel.
“This is unprecedented. We’ve never had a combination of the timing of the week, the urgency of the storm, the numbers, we’ve never had this,” said Rabbi Ilan Feldman, 63-year-old Atlanta native.
Feldman’s Congregation Beth Jacob in Toco Hill is one of the synagogues heading up the effort to take in evacuees, some from Savannah and Charleston but the majority from South Florida’s large Jewish community.
Jamie Straz along with his wife and children left their home in the heart of Miami Beach’s Orthodox community at 9 a.m. Wednesday and got to his sister’s house in Toco Hill at 1 a.m. Thursday.
He admits that the trek of nearly 670 miles took longer than it would for most because of their frequent stops to burp and feed a 6-week-old boy.
Straz said the newborn was the family’s deciding factor to leave because they didn’t want to take a boy too young to vaccinate to the airport if flying was their only method of escape.
“I’ve never evacuated before. It changes your perspective when you have kids,” said Straz, 30.
The architect checked his home’s exterior, caulked the areas of concern at his house and packed up important documents.
It appears many folks have done the same, he said. “South Beach is a ghost town.”
Straz heard of one business that sells grab-and-go kosher food telling people to come take all their food before they closed for the hurricane.
“Toco Hill is going to be Miami Beach for the week,” Straz said.
Local synagogues knew early that all of these people are going to need kosher food and reached out for help.
Now, an estimated $25,000 worth of kosher food is heading toward Atlanta, said Yehuda Friedman, who is a New York regional director with the Orthodox Union.
He said the organization — which helps participating synagogues throughout the country — provided the majority of the funding for the kosher food, including: 1,200 challah rolls, 300 pounds of chicken schnitzel, 20 cases of yogurt and 2 pallets of water.
Friedman said the group just raised $910,000 for the Orthodox community in Houston.
“In times of crisis, people (come) together,” he said.
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