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Friday, September 19, 2014

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Hurricane strands students for a week

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Stranded Shabbaton participants and chaperones, from left, are Joe Goldfarb, Galya Ouanounou, Ayelet Reiss, Eli Hagler, Tamar Lyons, Josh Mayer, Tamar Lesser, Adina Tanen, Danny Grunbaum, Talia Schwartz, Ellise Gasner and Micha Gasner. [Ali Rizvi photo]

A group of Toronto high school students made their way home from New York City after hurricane Sandy kept them on the ground for five days.

The students, from Bnei Akiva Schools, flew into the city on Oct. 26 for what they thought would be a weekend Shabbaton trip in Connecticut to learn ways to promote Yachad, an organization that helps people with disabilities.

The seven Toronto participants met up with hundreds of other students from around the United States, all of whom were nominated by their schools as people who have demonstrated community leadership, particularly in promoting Yachad in their schools, said Micha Gasner, who was volunteering as a chaperone for the retreat.

They spent the weekend at a conference centre in Connecticut, about 40 minutes from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, participating in sessions on leadership and community involvement.

The Canadian group was set to fly home to Toronto at 3 p.m. on Oct. 28 – a Sunday. They arrived at the airport confident they would make it home despite rumours that the airport would be closing. But that didn’t happen.

“They kept announcing the flight was being delayed because we were waiting for a crew member,” Gasner said, explaining that they had no pilot. One was scheduled to arrive from Chicago after 9 p.m.

Everybody waiting for other flights had left, Gasner said. Their flight was the only one left. Despite the airport’s assurances that they would make it home that night, eventually the flight was cancelled.

The group exchanged their tickets for a Wednesday afternoon flight, and they called on their New York friends to find places to stay for the three days. But the hurricane continued.

Many of the students were stuck in places without power.

“It was hard to get in touch with them because once their phone died, they couldn’t charge it anywhere,” Gasner said. She stayed in the Washington Heights area, which never lost electricity, but she said it was nerve-wracking to watch the news and to see all the trees that had toppled over.

Talia Schwartz stayed in the Riverdale area of the city with her friend. They lost power, but she was able to charge her cellphone and keep warm during the day at her friend’s sister’s apartment.

“It was a little scary, but it was freezing at night,” said Schwartz, who is a Grade 11 student at Ulpanat Orot Girls School. Wednesday came and went, and the group was still stuck in the city. The flight was cancelled and the bus station was closed, Gasner said. “They rebooked us for Thursday afternoon, but the flight agent who was helping us told us there was a good chance we wouldn’t be home until the weekend.”

Gasner’s mother, Ellise, ended up saving the day with her 12-seater van. The Yachad office arranged to have the group driven to Scranton, Penn., where Gasner and her friend, Ali Rizvi, picked them up.

“It rained the entire 15 hours,” she said. “I was thinking there was a cloud over my car.”

But despite the trouble getting home – they headed home on Nov. 1 – she said the group was pretty fortunate in their situation.

“Considering all the devastation, we’re very lucky,” she said.

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