No Shule for Rosh Hashana in Christchurch

September 21, 2011 by Mike Regan - Wellington
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After more than 8000 earthquakes the Christchurch Jewish community is still holding on to the hope that they will be able to rebuild and return to the vibrant group they had before it all started.

No Davening here

Vice-president and acting president Bettina Wallace in her report to the American Joint Jewish Distribution Fund, which donated $US25,000 to the community shortly after that first earthquake in September 2010, wrote that contrary to an earlier report, which suggested the community would be up and running as normal for the High Holy Days this year, that they would now be “lucky if repair works can start in 12 months time”.

“Since February we have had continuous earthquakes,” she said. “We have had a total of over 8000 quakes in the last 12 months. On June 13 we had a 5.8 and another 6.3 within 1 hour and 20 minutes. Those quakes caused considerable damage and all work and assessment of any previous damage came to a halt for 30 days.”

The halt was called for by insurance companies which supported by the seismologists’ belief that more quakes over 5 would be ‘likely’.

“They also believe that the grounds have to settle before any rebuilding or repairs can begin. As a result most repair work in Christchurch has stopped – including,of course, work on their shule and on the homes of almost every community member.

Liquefaction has been a huge problem. Liquefaction is where, during a severe earthquake, ground water causes the soil to become liquid which is then forced to the surface. As it does so it undermines  foundations, causes holes and cracks and forces pipes upwards. It quickly dries and then needs to be removed – generally by hand. Many thousands of truck loads of the stuff have been removed and stockpiled around the city.

Christchurch centre before the earthquake

Christchurch citizens now have to wait for their land to be assessed and categorised as to whether it is suitable and safe to build on.

The categories are:

red, denoting that buildings must be demolished and the land may never be build on again;

orange, meaning the degree of liquefaction and stability has to still be assessed;

white, which means the ground has yet to settle and where there is usually no liquefaction, and

green, which means the land is ok.

As far as the Jewish community knows the land on which their tiny shule is situated is green, but this still needs to be confirmed by the government agency in charge of the earthquake recovery programme.

The Ark

the same area after the earthquake

Current estimates are that it may take another year or more to rebuild the shule. Like many in the city, they are caught by a ‘catch 22’: insurance may pay for repairs but builders can’t get insurance to cover the period of time it takes to make those repairs.

The devastation caused by the quakes is huge, says Bettina. Two photographs with this article show the central city before and after. Three people were killed in this area.

“Insurance companies are hesitating to re-insure, slow with payments and require all sorts of reports and tests,” she said. “We need an engineer’s report for the shule and are currently waiting for a geo report.”

Meanwhile. discussions with their insurance company have become increasingly complicated. The community now have a special committee to deal with repairs to the shule and to negotiate with the insurance company.

“The positive outcome, so far, is that we have been re-insured, but to a lesser amount and with a much higher excess for earthquake damage.”

Another photo show the damaged shule straight after the February quake when the tower that holds the Ark was still standing, even though it needed support. Later the tower had to be removed. The Ark (also pictured) is now  in storage in a big container.

The engineers insist that the entire front part of the shule will need to be demolished and rebuilt.

In the meantime, services and activities take place in private homes. Recently, a community member who owns a vineyard restaurant just outside Christchurch, made it available for Pesach and a community lunch.

“When it became clear that our shule would not be available for some time the Board decided to look for a rental property,” she said. “Renting is quite difficult in Christchurch as many people have been displaced. Over 7000 homes have to be demolished with more than 1000 buildings currently being demolished in the inner city.”

They managed to rent a house in the last month – largely made possible through the donation from The Joint.

“The house is small, but has a huge living room which we have converted into a sanctuary. It can also double as a function room. We also have an office and a Cheder room, and a kitchen of course!”

The community is currently organising for the High Holidays for which two young Chabad rabbis from Melbourne will take.

“A succah will be ‘built’ in our wee backyard.”

The community is delighted to have at least a temporary home and are looking forward to activities after the High Holidays.

“Many of our members – and Christchurch people in general – are suffering from sleep deprivation, anxiety attacks, depression and stress. Life is hard and everything is difficult. There is nowhere to go to relax. Simple task become difficult. We try to help each other as much as we can and the donations have been absolutely wonderful as they enabled us to rent the house, sort our activities and support our members.”

Of the $US20,000 donation from The Joint Bettina reports that they have allocated $NZ6,000 to the wider Christchurch community givng it to a range of groups including the Christchurch scouts, Women’s Refuge, a free theatre which lost its building and Adopt a Christchurch family, a programme which helps individual families who lost everything

Both the Wellington and Auckland Jewish communities have invited any members from the Christchurch community to stay in their cities when they need a break but thus far none have taken advantage of the offer. Bettina says this is not because they don’t want to but all feel they must stay in town in case “the insurance people phone and say they are coming over the next day”

“just imagine what would happen if they found we were not home?” she asked. “Our names would be dropped to the bottom of the list and we would have to wait another three or six months.”

She hopes that before long they could take up the invitation. In the meantime, she is hoping that upcoming barmitzvah trainees can spend a weekend soon in Wellington to see a ‘real’ service, visit the Holocaust Education and Research Centre and stay with some families with similarly aged children.

The community has lost few members – less than a handful – to other cities, but have actually gained some new ones!


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