Jewish community recovering, pitching in following floods in Tennessee

Debris from home interiors fills the lawns at River Plantation in the Bellevue area of Nashville. (JTA Photo Service)
Debris from home interiors fills the lawns at River Plantation in the Bellevue area of Nashville. (JTA Photo Service)

NASHVILLE, TENN. (JTA)-Ruth Klar and Alicia Safdie knew they Jewish community recovering, pitching in following floods in Tennessee

were lucky, safe and healthy amid the flood’s muddy wreckage. But the little things made them cry.

“My cookbooks are gone,” Klar said in her den at River Plantation, a large townhome condominium community in Bellevue, one of the areas of Nashville hardest hit by the May 1-2 floods. Stains on the wall marked the 3-1/2 feet the floodwaters reached, taking the cookbooks full of favorite Jewish food recipes.

A few hundred yards away at Safdie’s home, she and Eva Watler took a break from clean-up.

“I used to baby-sit her in this house,” said Watler, tearing up.

“We’re gonna be OK,” said Safdie, who was rescued, along with her mother and two guests, by boat.

Just a few days after the rains finally quit, River Plantation offered up an eerie landscape. All types of vehicles lined the streets — visitors’ cars, workers’ trucks, church vans and dirt-crusted cars rendered useless by the flood.

Countless grayish mounds of dusty-smelling debris — sodden drywall, insulation, ruined tables, chairs, couches, books, toys, you name it — took over what used to be grassy front yards.

“It was pretty surreal,” Rabbi Kliel Rose of West End Synagogue said. “I don’t know how else to describe it.”

Rose had gone door to door at River Plantation the day before, just talking to residents, Jewish or not.

“The wonderful thing is the way the community is coming together for support,” the rabbi said. “It’s very powerful.”

Jewish Nashville quickly joined together to rebuild waterlogged homes and resettle uprooted families after more than 13 inches of rain pounded Middle Tennessee over two wearying weekend days.

The Jewish community began mobilizing its post-flood relief efforts when Harry Baker, the sports and fitness director at the Gordon Jewish Community Center, fielded a phone call just as rains began slackening a bit. A nearby Red Cross shelter was overflowing, and 140 people needed a place to stay.

“Without hesitation we said, ‘Get them over here,’ ” Baker said.

Five minutes later, the Red Cross arrived and workers readied the JCC gym and auditorium. In the end, more than 500 individuals slept in the gymnasium on cots provided by the Red Cross. They also were served three meals a day, thanks to the generosity of local restaurants.

In addition to providing shelter to displaced individuals, the JCC operated a relief distribution center for several days, allowing flood victims to come and take items of need, such as food, clothes, toys, books, toiletries and cleaning supplies.

Volunteers associated with the JCC staffed the relief center around the clock.

“The place looked like Macy’s — it was filled,” said the JCC’s executive director, Eric Goldstein, who had been out of town when the flooding first hit. Baker guided the first flood-relief efforts.

Initial help has reached Nashville quickly, from volunteers and donors. Jewish federations, including ones in San Antonio, Birmingham, Atlanta and southern Arizona, were quick to send food and donations. Day schools and preschools are collecting money, as are federations and congregations nationwide.

“We are assessing needs with [Jewish Family Services] and for now are encouraging donations from Jewish communities across North America,” he said. “The impact will be long term, and we and the general community will need support.”

Nashville resident Fred Zimmerman, chair of the national emergency services committee of the Jewish Federations of North America, said the disaster relief process encompasses three parts: immediate rescue work, resettlement and efforts to boost emotional resilience.

“This is a long-term process,” he said.

The Safdies’ story began at about 9 a.m. on Sunday, May 2, when rain crept into the first floor of their home. At first there were jokes about how they always wanted to replace the carpeting anyway, but the wisecracks soon stopped. In two hours, 4-1/2 feet of water inundated the first floor.

Alicia Safdie, her mother, Suzi Safdie, and her visiting cousin and his girlfriend went upstairs and stayed there until someone in a small boat rescued them that afternoon.

“We each packed a little bag,” hers with two favorite stuffed animals and two external hard drives from her computer, Alicia said.

They then climbed out the second-story window and down the side of the house, hanging onto woodwork, and into the boat. By that time the water outside was perhaps six feet high.

They threaded their way through newly formed “canals” between the subdivision buildings, bumping into buildings in the boat. Once they reached safety in an unflooded part of the subdivision, Alicia’s uncle picked them up and took them in.

Nearby, Ruth Klar talked with friends on her cell phone. She had lived in her house since 1986, when that section of River Plantation was first built and when her late husband, Stanley, retired.

Klar was able to salvage many family keepsakes — wedding photos, original pastel artwork of her three sons as Bar Mitzvahs, framed immigration documents from two or three generations ago.

The floodwaters stopped just short of a stenciled family tree that Klar had painted on her kitchen wall. But everything below the water line was pretty much destroyed.

Still, she and her son, Arthur, in from Knoxville, slogged through the next steps: a tetanus shot for him, FEMA aid applications for her.

The Safdies followed similar post-flood steps, with Suzi away from home to complete FEMA paperwork.

The bottom line, Alicia Safdie said, is they are here and they are safe. The rest, she added, is “all stuff, though. It can all be replaced.”

The Nashville federation has set up a mailbox on its website,, for flood relief donations.