As heavy rains and flash-flooding continued to batter the Boulder, Colo., area straight through Yom Kippur, and with rains continuing to hamper rescue efforts throughout the region on Sunday, Chabad rabbis told of devastation and devotion, as well as a dedication to volunteerism in the tough and uncertain days ahead.
Despite severe flooding in the synagogue of the Chabad on Campus center in Boulder, Rabbi Yisroel Wilhem, co-director of Chabad of the University of Colorado, held Yom Kippur services upstairs in the lobby of the building, which is above the flood line.
“We had about 300 people in attendance. Many people were not able to leave their homes because of the devastation, but many, many others came specifically because of what has been going on,” Wilhelm said on Sunday morning.
He noted that while some who were expected to attend were not able to make it, there were many new faces as well. His sermon, he said, focused on galvanizing his community—comprised heavily of students at the University of Colorado—to get out and help others.
As soon as the holy day ended on Saturday evening, despite flooding in his own home, Wilhelm began to organize hundreds of volunteers to help locals who have been affected by the rains. He created a Facebook page and a web site where both volunteers, as well as people in need of help, can sign up. He had 25 students volunteering on Friday and expected upwards of 50 students to be on hand on Sunday, helping people salvage their personal effects and valuables from their waterlogged homes.
“I have my new hero,” said Wilhelm. “A student who lives up the canyon was told by the police that he could not make his way down to services because of the flooding since the road was not there anymore. He just came down with his bike. He was wet and dirty to his waist because he had to cross two ‘rivers’ while holding his bike in the air. He stayed with us for Yom Kippur.”
The student, Jefferey Schnissel, is a chemistry major at University of Colorado. Schnissel, who is still recovering from a wrist injury, said the roads between his residence Cold Creek Canyon and the Chabad center had been washed away, and the only way he was able to come was via a patchwork of bike trails and streets.
‘Especially Poignant’ Yom Kippur Services
“At times, it was scary, and I did not know where to turn next, but I knew that I needed to be at Chabad for Yom Kippur and that I was in G‑d’s hands,” he said.
“The services were awesome. It seemed like the whole community gravitated together. People felt a sense of refuge.”
Rabbi Yaakov Borenstein, co-director of the Chabad Jewish Center in nearby Longmont, serves as a chaplain with the Longmont Police department. Borenstein received an urgent phone call on Thursday evening asking for reliable people to distribute blankets, cash cards and other necessities to people in need. With less than 24 hours before the start Yom Kippur, he recruited 10 members of his community to get ready to work. They were there until 6 or 7 the next morning.
Meanwhile, the Borentsteins themselves were ordered to evacuate their home, which was subsequently damaged by the flooding.
“It was 3 a.m., and our electricity was out,” said Borenstein, “So there we were with flashlights fishing around for clothes for the kids, as well as everything we would need for our Yom Kippur services.” The Borensteins got the last room in the same hotel where they had previously booked the meeting room to host Yom Kippur services. “We also paid for rooms in a nearby hotel for a number of other families who had lost their homes.”
Borenstein says the services were especially poignant, as despair and gloom hovered in the atmosphere. “We have not had a flood in Colorado in 100 years. That means that no one has insurance.
“Looking forward, we are going to have to help everyone get back on their feet. Across the street from the Chabad center, houses are devastated. Thank G‑d our door faced away from the current, and we managed to sandbag the doorways in time, but others were not as fortunate. People were crying, knowing that it is going to be a very, very hard year.”