(July 22, 2013 / JNS) Less than 24 hours after a tornado did widespread damage to Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio, one synagogue in the city opened its arms to its neighbors.
Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue with more than 1,000 members, began accepting donations July 21 to help offset what damages may not be covered by the college’s insurance company. A post on its Facebook page asked congregants to donate.
An exterior wall was blown away and a portion of the roof was ripped off of the O’Brien Athletic Center at Tornado-hit Ursuline College, a Catholic college of about 1,500 students, by an EF-1 tornado at about 3:45 a.m. July 20. Other buildings and trees were damaged, but no injuries were reported.
“We recognize the terrible tragedy,” Rabbi Stephen Weiss of B’nai Jeshurun told the Cleveland Jewish News. “They are our neighbor. We have close relations with them. We work with them. We’re collecting as much money as we can and will send it to the college.”
Weiss said the congregation learned of the storm damage—which was not confirmed as a tornado until later in the night—from congregant Jeff Zimon, whose wife Jill Miller Zimon is a Pepper Pike councilwoman.
“All he knew was a gym wall collapsed,” Weiss said. “He didn’t know more than that. The first I heard about it (the tornado) was Saturday night after Shabbat was over. I don’t listen to radio or TV on Shabbat.”
Pepper Pike Mayor Richard Bain, the city’s first Jewish mayor, was home in bed when he got a call at 5 a.m. July 20 that Ursuline College bore the brunt of the storm.
“I was awaken by police chief Michael Cannon, who had already been responding to the storm,” Bain said.
Bain, who lives about one mile from the campus, rushed to the scene, where he met Ursuline College President Sister Diana Stano. They observed an exterior wall of the athletic center that collapsed and a roof that was partially torn off. Portions of the wall landed around campus. The Dauby Science Center and the Ralph M. Beese Library also suffered damage.
“I was standing in the rain with Sister Stano, looking at the wreckage of that building,” Bain said. “It was shocking to see. I was concerned about the viability of the remaining structures staying upright.
“When sister told me a camp with children was sleeping in the building the day before, a sobering thought came to me about how a terrible situation was avoided,” he added.
Stano was also relieved that nobody was injured.
“We have a lot of camps in the summer,” she said. “We were blessed. We can repair the buildings. We lost a lot of trees that are not covered by insurance. We will try to raise money to replace trees.”
Pepper Pike’s Jewish community is home to B’nai Jeshurun, Park Synagogue, Friendship Circle, and Gross Schechter Day School. The city’s population of 5,950 is 65-percent Jewish, Bain said.
Junior Jordan Leventhal, one of 10 Jewish students at Tornado-hit Ursuline College, saw a television report of storm damage to the O’Brien Athletic Center on campus July 20 as he prepared for work as a paramedic at Menorah Park in Beachwood, Ohio. So he decided to stop and see the damage for himself.
“I was on scene before the news trucks came out,” he said. “I was devastated to see the beautiful campus destroyed. I saw the gym and uprooted trees on the way. I got as close as 200 feet, took pictures and texted 20 to 25 of my friends.”
Leventhal—who is majoring in public relations and marketing, and is in his second one-year term as Ursuline’s student government president—said he knew some kids who were on campus at the time of the tornado, explaining that there was “no warning for any of them.”
“They just woke up in the middle of the morning and said, ‘Wow!’” he said.
“You can rebuild a building, but not a life,” Leventhal added.
B’nai Jeshurun’s Weiss said his congregation recognizes after the tornado that “it could have been us.”
“We are grateful there was no loss of life,” he said. “We pray they are able to rebuild [at Ursuline].”
“The relationship between the Catholic Church and the community and the Catholic Church and the synagogues is a very strong relationship,” Weiss added. “Ursuline has a strong relationship with the Jewish community. We feel their pain.”