Historic St. Augustine synagogue struggles to cleanup following Hurricane Matthew


Federation Communications Director


                 Historic St. Augustine synagogue, First Congregation Sons of Israel was one of many buildings in St. Johns country that received significant damage due to the storm surge resulting from Hurricane Matthew in early October. When the clouds finally cleared and the water somewhat receded, the 93-year old temple still had no power and standing water within its doors. 

                One of the first people to inspect the damages was Synagogue President Les Stern and his wife Karen, who were holding their collective breaths, not knowing what they would see when they opened the doors of their beloved home away from home after leaving it a few days before to weather to storm.

                “Water encroached between 12 and 18 inches throughout the entire floor of the sanctuary, but most of the water was in the Rabbi’s study,” Stern explained. “In fact when we came the Saturday after the storm, we had on an emergency basis to get the water remediation company to extract the water out of there.”

                But as Stern and his fellow congregants soon came to find out, water and electricity don’t mix, creating for a very tenuous situation when dealing with getting power back to portions of the building.

                “All the electrical outlets were submerged so that when the power came back on, we went to turn the lights back on in the sanctuary, but when we did that all the light switches began sparking,” he recalled of the frightening ordeal. “As a result power had to be shut down to the front of the building and workers won’t even come to begin any of the work until things are cleaned up.”

                Those wanting to worship inside the historic sanctuary at First Congregation Sons of Israel are now unable to do so as there is no power in that area of the building and the air is not suitable to breathe for extended periods of time either.

                “What we’ve had to do is make this makeshift sanctuary in what is known as our social hall with folding chairs and the like.”

                Stern stresses that the structure of the near century old building is sound, it’s just that the building has to be rewired electrically which for lack for lack of a better term can cost a heft amount of shekels.

                “We’re looking at somewhere around $100,000 just to get us up and running in the sanctuary,” he conveyed to his fellow members of the Northeast Florida Jewish community. “We’ve certainly received offers of help and in fact some of those offers have come from congregations that are not even in Florida.”

                Donations are now coming in through a GoFundMe page, which as of mid-November has raised $55,468. A total of 68 people in one month have donated to that fund, which is accessible via gofundme.com/historic-synagogue-restoration-2ugza8c.

                “We are seeking whatever funding we can,” Stern said. “We have met with FEMA representatives and the United States small business administration in order to do all that we can to open our sanctuary back up again as soon as possible.”

           Another avenue donations can be given has been set up in the form of the First Coast Relief Fund, which has already secured $7,500 for the synagogue in addition to another $7,500 from Jewish Federations of North America. The Jewish Federation of Jacksonville has joined along with partners, The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida and The United Ways of St. Johns County and Northeast Florida in the First Coast Relief Fund and the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund has pledged up to $500,000 to help get the region-wide relief effort started, which will assist organizations affected by damage due to Hurricane Matthew.

To donate to the First Coast Relief Fund, simply log on t0 bit.ly/flfirstcoastrelief, or text the word ‘STORM’ to the number 50503. Checks are also payable to The United Way of Northeast Florida with ‘Florida’s First Coast Relief Fund’ in the memo and can be sent to P.O. Box 41428 Jacksonville, FL 32203-1428.

The Cleanup Continues

First Congregation Sons of Israel Hurricane Damage