After Irma, Tampa Bay synagogues get ready for Rosh Hashana

"I think that the sensational story of Irma is really the power of people. People helping people."

As the holiest days of the Jewish calendar approached, so did Hurricane Irma.

While residents prepared for the storm and weighed whether to stay or evacuate, Tampa Bay's temples and synagogues secured sacred Torah scrolls and assessed how the storm could affect services and programs for the important High Holidays.

At Congregation B'nai Israel of St. Petersburg, that meant rescheduling a visit by a renowned rabbi from the Czech Republic.

In Tampa, Congregation Rodeph Sholom along flood-prone Bayshore Boulevard began scouting alternate locations to observe the period also known as the Days of Awe, which begins Wednesday evening with Rosh Hashana — the Jewish New Year — and concludes with Yom Kippur, which begins Sept. 29 at sundown.

Temple B'nai Israel in Clearwater, which was without power until Friday, canceled last weekend's pre-High Holy Days' Selichot, or penitential, services. Rabbi Daniel Treiser said other services will go on as scheduled.

"We are going to offer some extra prayers of gratitude," he said, adding that his congregation appears to have weathered Irma without significant problems.

But Rabbi Alter Korf of the Chabad Jewish Center of Greater St. Petersburg, which also lost power, couldn't say the same. The center had to help members, some of whom are elderly, relocate before the hurricane. After the storm, they took hot meals and cold water to those without electricity.

"I don't think God wants me to think of Rosh Hashana right now," Korf said last week. "Everything that can be done to preserve life takes precedence."

By Monday, conditions were less dire. Power was back at the center and most members' homes, and Korf announced that Chabad had "shifted our focus to prepare for Rosh Hashana."

"I think that the sensational story of Irma is really the power of people. People helping people," he said. "For me, that's going to influence a great deal of the message and discussions and sermons during this High Holiday season."

Irma has been even more disruptive for congregations from areas of Florida that were severely affected by the storm and had members leave the state. Synagogues around the country are being asked to admit those who were displaced by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Rabbi Yaakov Zucker of the Chabad Jewish Center in the Florida Keys said his congregation of about 200 had to evacuate and is now spread across four states.

"They themselves are sort of wandering Jews right now, refugees," Zucker said.

The 10-day period from Rosh Hashana — celebrated with special foods such as apples dipped in honey to symbolize the wish for a sweet New Year — to Yom Kippur, is steeped in self-examination, repentance, renewal and hope. Preparation begins a month earlier with special prayers and the sounding of the shofar. Selichot services, during which worshipers offer prayers reflecting on their actions of the past year, seeking forgiveness and hope for improvement in the coming year, took place last Saturday.

The service is usually held late at night, but Congregation B'nai Israel adjusted the schedule when Rabbi Ron Hoffberg of Prague was forced to cancel his travel plans because of Irma. Hoffberg was to speak about the Jewish history of Prague and tell stories of the rediscovery of Judaism by Jews who had grown up in the Soviet bloc.

"We thought that hearing such great stories of today would inspire us to rededicate ourselves to our Jewish way of life as we begin the New Year 5778," Rabbi Jacob Luski said.

In Tampa, Rabbi Josh Hearshen of Congregation Rodeph Sholom had prepared four sermons for the High Holidays, but now the storm has become one of his subjects.

"I will be speaking about what we learn from hurricanes and natural disasters on day one," he said, referring to the two-day Rosh Hashana observance.

Hearshen, like other area rabbis, said that his synagogue's doors are open to those who had to evacuate from other parts of Florida and need a place to worship for the High Holidays.

That's one of the reasons that Rabbi Levi Hodakov is expecting a larger crowd than usual at Chabad of Clearwater.

"We have gotten a number of calls from people who have evacuated from various areas around the state and they know they're always welcome at Chabad," he said.

"We have a magical center," he said with a laugh. "The more people come in, the more space we've got. . . . They may have to stand at the back, but there will be space for them. The only thing we are going to have to do is throw more brisket into the oven."

Rabbi Richard Birnholz of Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa also put out the welcome mat.

"We want people to know if there are out-of-town evacuees who cannot make it home that Schaarai Zedek is delighted to invite them to our High Holiday and Shabbat services," he said.

Thanksgiving is another common theme among bay area rabbis.

"Our community needs to come together to celebrate the New Year and be reminded of the goodness and sweetness that does exist in the temple and the broader community," said Rabbi Michael Torop of Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg, which suffered no damage.

Luski, the rabbi at Congregation B'nai Israel, also emphasized gratitude.

"After experiencing Hurricane Harvey far away and Hurricane Irma right here," he said, "we all have much to be grateful for in the bounty of God's blessings amidst the losses and suffering of our neighbors and friends."

"I pray that this Rosh Hashana will be a time for healing and renewal for all our communities."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.