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FJA history teacher Joe Bernstein hands out water bottles to juniors Ben Goldstein and Russell Presser during the Oakland Co. water crisis.
FJA history teacher Joe Bernstein hands out water bottles to juniors Ben Goldstein and Russell Presser during the Oakland Co. water crisis.

Jewish institutions take Oakland County boil water advisory in stride

For nearly a week, people living in 12 Oakland County communities were advised to boil water used for drinking, preparing food and more after a line break potentially contaminated water supplies the evening of Monday, Oct. 23.

The next morning, fitness enthusiasts wishing to get in a workout at the Jewish Community Center of Metro Detroit in West Bloomfield were out of luck and students at Frankel Jewish Academy got a “water boil” day off to catch up on their sleep and study one more day for upcoming exams.

FJA history teacher Joe Bernstein hands out water bottles to juniors Ben Goldstein and Russell Presser during the Oakland Co. water crisis.

In general, schools, synagogues and senior residences throughout the Jewish community in Bloomfield Township, West Bloomfield and Farmington Hills took the situation in stride, implemented safety procedures as directed by the Oakland County health and safety guidelines — including ensuring toilets could flush and sprinklers were in working order — and counted their blessings compared to those long suffering in hurricane-ravaged areas of the United States as well as residents in Flint, who endured poisoned water supplies for nearly two years.

Across the region, schools and buildings closed on Tuesday when it was unsure if there would be any water supply at all and to also prepare their sites for the coming week by closing water fountains and setting up water bottle distribution centers and hand-sanitizing stations.

Come Oct. 25, the JCC and the FJA campus reopened. Water fountains were sheeted with plastic and the locker rooms, showers and saunas remained closed. FJA students were supplied with water bottles and extra hand-sanitizing stations.

“We made do just like everyone else,” Bryan Gottlieb, FJA director of marketing and communications, said. “The students were very responsible and other than the fact we lost a day of Spirit Week [for Homecoming], the situation put things like [the plight of the people in] Puerto Rico in perspective. It was a minor inconvenience. The biggest headache for staff was that we couldn’t make coffee.”

The only programs that remained closed throughout the water boil advisory were the pool and the Sarah and Irving Pitt Child Development Center.
On Oct. 25 the JCC released the following statement regarding its decision to prolong these closures:

“Under these conditions, we are not able to operate as normal. We will continue to update you as more information is shared with us from Oakland County. We recognize that this is an inconvenience to parents and hope that it will be resolved sooner than anticipated.”

Hillel Day School of Metro Detroit was also closed Oct. 24 but opened for the remainder of the week, as did many public schools across the affected region.

Head of School Steve Freedman released the following statement last Tuesday evening announcing the reopening of the school:

“The safety of our students and staff is always the top priority. The school did not lose its running water and all bathrooms remained operational. Water fountains were either blocked or shut off and the school purchased cases of bottled water for drinking; the cafeteria was open for lunch using boiled water for cooking, and cleaning pots and utensils and bottled water for food preparation.”

The staff and administrators at Jewish Senior Life of Metropolitan Detroit also acted quickly, first informing senior residents and their caregivers about the situation and then securing safe supplies of water for drinking and cooking, said Nancy Heinrich, JSL CEO.

While some residents with open wounds were advised not to bathe with tap water because of increased risk of infection, Heinrich said the staff worked quickly to modify the kitchens where meals are prepared and served three times each day in assisted living and memory care residencies and five dinners per week in independent living residences. Every resident received one gallon of water per day that was delivered to their doorsteps. The kitchen staff worked with gallons of bottled water to cook and prepare meals and switched glass and silverware to disposable paper and plastic cutlery.

“We consider ourselves fortunate that none of our residences lost water pressure to flush toilets; but if that were the case, we had other additional emergency procedures to be put in place,” Heinrich said. “Our residents have been phenomenal and heeded the cautions, and we all did the best we could to keep our residents comfortable and supplied with clean drinking water.”

By Sunday, Oct. 29, all communities but sections of Farmington Hills got the all-clear from Oakland County that water was safe after residents and buildings took the proper post-advisory procedures to flush their water systems from possibly contaminated water.

Stacy Gittleman Contributing Writer

Stacy Gittleman

Stacy Gittleman is an award-winning journalist and has been a contributing writer for the Detroit Jewish News for the last five years. Prior to moving to Metro Detroit in 2013, she was a columnist and feature writer for Gannett's Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, NY. She also manages social media pages for other local non-profit organizations including the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. Contact her with breaking news and feature story ideas that impact Detroit's Jewish community at stacy.gittleman@yahoo.com

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