Thus far, there are no reports of injuries or fatalities in Alabama's Jewish community following a tornado outbreak that is being described as historic, but there were apparently several close calls.
The weather outbreak began around 5 a.m. yesterday as a line of storms went across the state, causing straight-line wind damage that was described by weather watchers as being comparable -- and as wide-spread -- to that of a hurricane. One of the hardest-hit areas was Cahaba Heights, just south of Birmingham, which was hit by a tornado or straight-line winds. Trees were toppled along Crosshaven, and a shopping center was severely damaged. Knesseth Israel Congregation and Bais Ariel Chabad Center, located less than half a mile from Crosshaven, were not damaged but, like the rest of the area, are without electricity.
There have been reports of trees on houses of families in the Jewish community.
The rash of afternoon tornadoes included one that flattened areas near the University of Alabama, narrowly missing Bryant-Denny Stadium. The worst damage was around 15th Avenue at McFarland Boulevard, which put the tornado's track just south of the newly-dedicated University of Alabama Hillel and Temple Emanu-El. Some of the fatalities reportedly were students in off-campus housing. About 700 Jewish students attend Alabama.
That tornado later tracked just north of downtown Birmingham around 6 p.m. and into Georgia. As of this afternoon, over 160 fatalities have been reported in the state, and whole communities have been destroyed.
The Birmingham Jewish Federation is working with United Way of Central Alabama to coordinate disaster relief. In previous disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, Birmingham's Collat Jewish Family Services played a central role in case management and other disaster relief. In an interview earlier this year, former CJFS Executive Director Esther Schuster noted that CJFS' role in the larger community dates back to the response to a 1999 tornado outbreak in Oak Grove, near Birmingham.
Donations are being accepted at the BJF website; donors are advised to note "tornado relief" when making the donation.
There were numerous activities cancelled in advance of the weather. A Birmingham community Yom HaShoah commemoration scheduled for last night will be held May 1 at 4 p.m., at Temple Emanu-El. Huntsville's Temple B'nai Sholom cancelled all Wednesday evening activities and planned to be closed today and tomorrow, until Shabbat services.