It is now one month since Hurricane Sandy. Yet many conversations still begin with a recounting of personal experiences after the storm. It feels like we are recovering from a collective post traumatic stress.

It was a challenging couple of weeks, but still I am mindful that many people had it so much worse than I did. For some, the total devastation is more than a story of a lost month. Our personal experiences in enduring the storm’s destruction has made us that much more aware of the suffering of those who lost so much. We have a heightened sympathy for their suffering and their needs.

Sympathy was shared in abundance during the days immediately after the storm. Everyone was trying to be in touch with friends, neighbors and community as much as possible. People reached out to help each other in extraordinary ways.  We shared our homes, our cars, our food, our generators, and companionship.  Some even shared precious gasoline for those in desperate need. Neighbors connected in ways that recalled a lost era of neighborhood relationships.

We shared our warm synagogue building for several days.  Some people who had generators or just plain good luck stopped by anyway for companionship.  We shared the emotional challenges of cold and dark homes, long gas lines, impossible commutes, and in some cases, damaged homes. The kids learned that it’s not such fun to have schools closed for so long, and we offered a place for families to play together.  It was comforting at even fun at times.

We shared a beautiful Shabbat dinner thanks to the fast work of a couple of people, and a crew who spontaneously helped them to prepare. The warmth of the community experience that night will not soon be forgotten.

The long line for gasoline at the gas station up the street from the synagogue caught our attention and we realized we had an opportunity to provide hospitality (it took an average of 3 hours to get gas for a few days.) A group from our synagogue went out with pots of coffee in hand to offer warmth to folks waiting in line. This simple act of kindness made such an impression on the people in their cars. I was so touched and proud to witness it.

The next morning there was a very long line waiting for the gas station, based on just a rumor that it would open. Many people had gotten out of their cars to chat with each other. I went out and offered that folks could come in for coffee or the bathroom as needed. Over the next hour many people came in to use the facilities and they were so grateful.  The gas station never did open that day, but the shared sympathy lightened the day just a bit.

At our synagogue board meeting we talked about the lessons we had learned. A new committee will work on a plan for building access and supplies for future emergencies. We realized that despite all the attempts to communicate using email and our Facebook group, we need to have everyone’s cell phone numbers so we can activate a phone chain. We appreciated the opportunity to help one another – and now we want to do a better job in the future.  That is community at its best.

In a crisis, the best in people can come out.  But after watching one driver butt into the gasoline line at the front; after hearing stories of people forcefully pushing each other in order to get onto crowded trains and buses, I realized that these crises can also bring out the worst in us.  Our fears animated our desire to help each other, but sometimes also ignited ugly selfishness.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav was famously quoted as saying, “The world is a very narrow bridge. The essential thing is to have no fear at all.”  How fortunate we are to have a spiritual community that helps us to animate our best responses to fear and need. Sympathy and sharing: that is a lesson worth remembering from this experience.