By Lee Chottiner
Jan West never expected her recent weekend trip to Bowling Green to end so abruptly.
A Louisville resident and member of the Western Kentucky University Board of Regents, West and her husband, Jonathan Goldberg – Adath Jeshurun members – were in town for a commencement ceremony on Saturday, Dec. 11. But first, they attended a party for the regents at the president’s home the night before.
As they enjoyed themselves, West had no idea that a storm powerful enough to spawn one of the worst tornado outbreaks in Kentucky history, was bearing down on them.
The weather was warm, she said, a little drizzly, nothing major until the middle of the night when they were back at their hotel.
“The winds were very strong and loud,” West recalled. “It was scary, but where we were, it was just very fortunate.”
It wasn’t until the next morning that they realized just how fortunate they had been.
“We began seeing on our phones everything that had happened,” she said, “and I got a text that the graduation ceremony had been canceled.”
West is one of several Jews with roots in western Kentucky who either rode out the tornado or has been recalling memories from their lives there since the catastrophic storm struck.
As of Thursday, 71 people were confirmed dead and more than 100 were missing following the locomotive weather, that flattened whole communities and caused millions of dollars in damage. At least 12 of the dead were children.
Few Jews live in western Kentucky today, and the region has just one synagogue: Temple Israel in Paducah, which was established in 1871. Today, it has 29 families, according to the Union for Reform Judaism.
“Our Jewish population right here is very, very small,” said Fran Johnson of Mayfield, a board member at Temple Israel, who rode the storm out with her husband and puppy in a closet of their home. “Most of the children have gone to college and gotten jobs away from here.”
The tornado damaged the home of one Temple Israel couple in Dawson Springs, Johnson said. “I don’t know the extent, but they can’t live in it at the moment.”
West, who grew up in Mayfield, said several Jewish families once called that town home.
“It’s so sad, just to see all those beautiful buildings [destroyed],” she said. “When I was growing up there, most of the stores on the courthouse square were owned by Jewish people.”
Debbie Hamontree, daughter of Caroline and A.W. Rosenthal of Louisville, Temple Shalom members, still lives in Mayfield where she is a surgical technician at Jackson Purchase Medical Center. She compared the hospital Emergency Room after the tornado to “a war zone,” the unit filling with patients with broken bones and lacerations covering their bodies.
“Not a single spot on their bodies hasn’t been massively bruised, scratched, scraped – road rash injuries,” she said. “What got me the most were the kids, 1- to 2-year-olds.”
Hamontree is also a trained weather spotter for the National Weather Service, which means she knew for days in advance that a potentially severe storm was coming.
The day it struck, “you could feel it in the air,” she said. “When I went to work in the morning, it was rather cool, but when I got off, just the humidity, the air temperature, the feeling; you knew it could be worse than we had originally thought.”