As Hurricane Harvey battered Houston with record rainfall, Jewish communities across the United States mobilized to raise funds for the recovery effort: Most of Houston’s Jewish population of about 64,000 live in the neighborhoods hardest hit by the storm. A week after the hurricane hit, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles alone had raised more than $200,000 for disaster relief.
But last week, L.A.’s Etan Goldman, 47, better known by his stage name, Etan G The Jewish Rapper, decided to go further than clicking the donate button online and headed to Houston to donate time and resources. Packing a van full of supplies, he made the road trip in three days and stuck around to help with the cleanup effort.
[Hurricane Harvey: How you can help]
Arriving in Houston midway through Week One of the recovery effort, G came amid waves of volunteers flocking to the city. Even before many of the roads were passable, some came from neighboring states with boats in tow to rescue those trapped by floodwaters. After the waters receded, organizations such as Chabad arranged shipments of kosher meat as large as 40,000 pounds to feed Houston’s Jewish community.
For G, it was his personal connection that drew him to the waterlogged city.
The rapper grew up in Baltimore but moved to Los Angeles in 1993 when his parents and sister moved to Houston, where they still live. Although his sister’s home was mostly spared, putrid floodwater rushed through his parents’ ranch-style home in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Meyerland, destroying most of their possessions and causing extensive property damage.
He left Los Angeles on Aug. 30, drove for the majority of three days and arrived on Friday, Sept. 1. After a day of moving furniture and goods back and forth on Sunday, G said he was exhausted.
“I didn’t think I was going to be needed as much,” he told the Journal by phone. “It’s a balancing game between helping out my parents and getting that work done, and helping out the community.”
A resident of Pico-Robertson, G is perhaps best known for touring with the parody rock band Shlock Rock, but he has released solo albums, as well. In 2007, a rhyme called “Making a Motzi” got him booted from the Chabad telethon, but the video he posted of the incident has earned more than 37,000 views on YouTube.
Two days after Harvey made landfall, he spoke with his parents by phone as water rushed into their Houston home. When it became clear that his parents, both in their 70s, would need to move to an apartment so their home could be gutted and repaired, G figured he could fly to Houston and help them move, then fly back.
“I’m just trying to save my baseball card collection,” he joked shortly before his trip.
But later that Sunday, he found himself speaking with a friend at a barbecue and viewing party for the season finale of “Game of Thrones.” His friend suggested they gather some materials that could be useful for the cleanup effort so he could drive them to Houston.
“I’ll get in an RV, you’ll get the goods, we’ll make a party out of it and we’ll get over there,” G recalled telling his friend.
It turned out to be impossible to get a recreational vehicle — the Burning Man festival in Nevada fell on the same week as G’s expedition, prompting a run on the market for campers — but he said he managed to rent a cargo van, which Hertz leased him at a reduced rate after he explained why he needed it.
A member of Young Israel of Century City and the Happy Minyan, G put out the word to his community, saying he would leave his garage door unlocked for 48 hours so people could drop off donations. Boxes of supplies appeared, filled with diapers, fans, extension cords, Windex, bleach and more. G fundraised through the website of his registered nonprofit, Rock4Israel, which normally works to bring prominent musicians to Israel, and quickly raised $2,000 to cover the cost of his road trip.
Then, around 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, he loaded up the van and headed out with his 10-year-old son, Yishai, in the passenger seat. Yishai watched movies on a tablet while G drove through California, Arizona, New Mexico and most of Texas, for a total of more than 20 hours on the road in three days.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m getting tired,” he announced to his Facebook followers about 30 hours after he set out, in a video filmed somewhere near the midpoint of his trip, outside Las Cruces, N.M. “Long, boring drive, the eyes getting heavy.”
He arrived in Houston the next day to a scene of devastation, immediately getting to work in the wreckage of his parents’ house. “The stink in there is unbelievable,” he said.
There were moments of reprieve. An observant Jew, G paused for Shabbat. He had managed to salvage some of his dad’s good scotch and brought it for a Kiddush at the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, a welcome treat for members of the flooded shul.
After Shabbat it was back to work, wearing rubber gloves and a surgical mask to tear into the debris in his parents’ home. In between the demolition and waste removal, he found time to drop off the relief cargo from Los Angeles at the Robert M. Beren Academy, an Orthodox day school turned volunteer command center. With his newly emptied van, G ran errands for the community, on one trip picking up a safe for the day school to store tools and on another delivering goods for the local Jewish Community Center.
Becky Sobelman-Stern, chief programs officer for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, also traveled to Houston, to help assess the situation for the national network of Jewish Federations.
Asked if others should undertake a trip like G’s, she told the Journal, “If they really want to roll up their sleeves and get dirty, yes. If not, they should consider making a gift.”
After working until 10 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 3, G stayed in Houston for another three days before flying home with his son on a flight booked with airline miles donated by a benefactor in Los Angeles.
To other prospective volunteers, G quoted a rabbi from his teen years in Maryland, saying, “Never underestimate the power of your presence.”
He added: “Come — people will find you something to do. There’s tons of stuff to do.”