When 9-year-old Ryan Bailey and his little brother, Caleb, 6 came to visit family in Baltimore last week for Rosh Hashanah, little did they know they would stay longer than anticipated.
Because of Hurricane Florence, Ryan and Caleb — who live in Norfolk, Va., and attend the Hebrew Academy of Tidewater in Virginia Beach — were still in Charm City when the holiday ended and most Jewish day schools resumed.
As planned, they returned to school the day after the Jewish new year. Just not to their school.
“Krieger Schechter Day School welcomed my kids right in,” says Robyn Bailey, whose sister, Jodi Wahlberg, is a KSDS middle school teacher. “They treated them as part of the community, made them feel really special and helped make them feel like the situation was normal.”
But for the two youngsters — whose mom and youngest brother were still in Norfolk, while their dad is the domestic operations plans officer for the Virginia National Guard and responsible for state emergencies planning — the situation was anything but normal.
“On Monday [Sept. 10], my husband said we needed to leave Norfolk, and that night the governor issued a mandatory evacuation for our area,” says Bailey. “I packed up and made my way to Baltimore. This was the first time we’ve had a mandatory evacuation, and it’s been unnerving and harder doing it by myself since my husband has had to work.”
Bailey says what made the evacuation a bit easier for her family was the generosity and kindness of the entire KSDS and Chizuk Amuno Congregation communities.
“Rabbi [Joshua Z.] Gruenberg had my sister and her family over for Rosh Hashanah lunch, and it was so thoughtful of him to include my kids so they could celebrate the holiday,” Bailey says of Chizuk Amuno’s new senior spiritual leader. “And when I couldn’t get to them on Wednesday, when school resumed, the teachers treated my kids as one of their own. Caleb even came home with homework.”
Ryan spent the day in fourth grade while Caleb attended a second grade class, with both boys joining their cousins’ classes at KSDS. The Baileys have since returned home and are back at their own school, since the hurricane passed by their area completely.
However, Florence, which has been called “the storm of a lifetime,” is currently impacting millions of lives up and down the East Coast, with North Carolina being hit the hardest. At least 17 people have been killed as a result of Florence and the storm has left catastrophic flooding in its wake.
“The liturgy of the High Holidays — particularly the well-known line in the Unetanah Tokef which states, ‘Who shall perish by water and who by fire’ — comes to mind during a time like this,” says Rabbi Moshe Schwartz, KSDS’s head of school. “The way to respond to tragedies like this is not to throw in the towel and feel God is wreaking havoc, but to counteract the words by supporting those who are affected. When I was sitting in shul, I immediately thought we could do something to help those impacted by water.”
This isn’t the first time KSDS extended a helping hand to hurricane refugees. Last year, when Hurricane Harvey pummeled Houston, a family from that Texan city came to Baltimore to stay with relatives. Because the kids were older, they didn’t need to attend school, but members of the KSDS community provided logistical support and materials for them.
Helping those in need is a lesson Rabbi Schwartz says is important to teach students.
“We are a school that practices what we preach,” he says. “It’s part of our philosophy to welcome others and when we do it, those people immediately become part of our family. It’s powerful to show our students that the network of Jewish education extends and transcends physical barriers and borders of communities.”
Rabbi Schwartz recognizes that having new students in a classroom could cause disruptions, but he says the lessons learned by doing so surpasses minor interruptions.
“Because of the holidays, these aren’t full weeks of school and we are still forming our routine,” he says. “By welcoming those in need, our students learn resilience, empathy and compassion at a young age.”
For Ryan and Caleb, seeing how students at another day school spend their academic days was a unique and exciting opportunity, making a challenging situation a little more pleasant.
“They loved the fact Schechter had lockers,” says Robyn Bailey, noting that students at the Hebrew Academy of Tidewater don’t have lockers until the fifth grade. “That was a big highlight. They also noticed how the teaching was a little different, specifically mentioning math.
“KSDS really treated my kids as members of this community, and that was huge for all of us.”
To help victims of Hurricane Florence, visit associated.org/Florence.
Aliza Friedlander is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.