A little more than a year ago, a hurricane that rightly earned "superstorm" as its prefix barreled through the Northeast and left behind billions in damage.
Some affected by Superstorm Sandy are still recovering, and as Hanukkah approached this year, the children of Congregation B'nai Israel in St. Petersburg began creating special religious-themed gifts for a Long Island congregation that had been badly hit.
Guided by internationally known sculptor and glass artist Gary Rosenthal, each child made a unique mezuzah case — to hold a rolled parchment inscribed with passages from the Torah — for the Long Island synagogue and those in the Jewish community whose homes had been destroyed or damaged. In keeping with a passage from Deuteronomy, a mezuzah is fixed to the right doorpost of Jewish homes.
"When you put up a mezuzah in your home, you are dedicating your home to God," Rabbi Jacob Luski of Congregation B'nai Israel said.
The mezuzah gifts, he said, are an apt correlation to Hanukkah, with its central theme of freedom and Jewish identity. Hanukkah, which begins at sundown tonight, commemorates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after its recapture from the Syrian-Greek oppressors who had forbidden Jews to practice their faith. Only one cruse of undefiled oil was found to rekindle the temple's eternal light, but miraculously, the oil that should have lasted for one day, lasted for eight. Beginning tonight, and continuing for a total of eight nights, menorahs will be lit to commemorate that miracle.
The mezuzah cases from St. Petersburg will be sent to Temple Israel of South Merrick, which is about 35 miles outside New York City. Superstorm Sandy caused extensive damage to the congregation's Hebrew school, which will receive some of the mezuzahs for its classrooms.
Jack Sutton, a 15-year-old Shorecrest student, said he was happy to be part of Congregation B'nai Israel's "twinning" project with the Long Island synagogue.
"I think it is really important to be able to give back to the Superstorm Sandy victims," the 10th-grader said. "And I thought it was a really cool opportunity to work with Gary Rosenthal, because his work is amazing."
"Gary was just wonderful," said Judi Gordon, a former Congregation B'nai Israel president. "He personalized the creative process for each of the kids."
Rosenthal, based in the Washington, D.C.,-area, was resident artist at the St. Petersburg congregation's annual gift and craft show, held this month. Rosenthal held an artist's workshop for the synagogue's students, each of whom received two free mezuzah kits, one to make for the Long Island synagogue, and another to keep.
Holocaust survivor Lilly Salcman, 91,, who understands the value of freedom and identity, gave the money for the project and also for a Rosenthal sculpture to mark Congregation B'nai Israel's 90th anniversary this year.
"I got a beautiful note from a young boy, thanking me" for the mezuzah project, she said, adding that having gone through what she did during the Holocaust, she wants to help here in America and in Israel.
During a 1998 interview, she said her faith had helped her to survive the deprivation and loss of her parents, brother and other relatives.
Pointing to a family photograph, she said then: "This is our reason for surviving. To have children and the grandchildren. To have continuity of the family. To not have Hitler be right that he would completely wipe out the Jewish people from the earth."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org at (727) 892-2283.