October 19, 2018

Hurricane Harvey fundraising for Jewish Houston just getting started

More than 1,000 Jewish families were confirmed as displaced from their homes in Houston by Hurricane Harvey, the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston estimated this month, with that number expected to more than double.

The devastating floods launched a national fundraising effort by Jewish groups to spur the recovery process. As the Jewish year drew to a close in mid-September, fundraising was well underway, but it continued to be outpaced by needs and hampered by the shrinking media attention, which shifted from Hurricane Harvey in southwest Texas to Hurricane Irma in Florida and the Caribbean. Even if fundraising goals are met, community members in Houston expect the recovery to last for months or more.

[Hurricane Harvey: How you can help]

After Harvey wrought catastrophic damage on Houston’s Jewish community, the Jewish Federations of North America put out a call asking for donations to the recovery effort that inevitably would follow.

“Especially in Los Angeles, people care about this,” said Jay Sanderson, CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which raised $550,000 for victims of Harvey. “But the further and further away we get from the hurricane itself, the further people will feel from it. And what we do know is this is a long road that Houston has to deal with.”

Jewish communities from across the continent answered the Federations’ pleas, sending in $12 million by mid-September to a Federation fund set up for the recovery. But three weeks after the storm, the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston still aimed to raise another $18 million to meet the needs of its community.

After Irma brought flooding and power outages to Florida in early September, the Jewish Federations of North America launched a companion effort to raise funds for its victims. However, though Florida’s Jewish population is about 10 times the size of Houston’s, Jewish communities and institutions in the Sunshine State were spared the same catastrophic damage.   

During and immediately after Hurricane Harvey, the Houston Federation worked closely with local Jewish organizations in the city, including the six major institutions that flooded: Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform temple; Congregation Beth Yeshurun, a Conservative synagogue; United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston (UOS); the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Houston; the Torah Outreach Resource Centre of Houston (TORCH); and Seven Acres Jewish Senior Care Services, a residential facility for the elderly.

Despite flooding at the homes of its top leaders, the Houston Federation partnered with Houston’s Jewish Family Service and Chabad to deploy aid.

Operating through its Texas regional headquarters in Houston, Chabad also launched a separate aid and recovery effort as record-setting rainfall lashed southwest Texas from Aug. 25-27.

Rabbi Barry Gelman of the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston in the main sanctuary of the shul, which flooded during Hurricane Harvey.

During the first days of the disaster, Chabad arranged to ship tens of thousands of pounds of kosher meat to the Houston Jewish community, which is concentrated in the hardest-hit areas of the city and was devastated by feet of floodwater that often carried sewage and other waste.

By mid-September, the religious outreach group had collected approximately $800,000 in cash donations and donated goods worth hundreds of thousands more for relief efforts in the Houston and Corpus Christi regions, according to Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff, Chabad’s Hurricane Harvey relief coordinator. The funds are being used for storm cleanup, trucking of goods, emergency assistance, temporary housing, a food and supplies pantry, a Chabad command and call center and more, he wrote in a Sept. 17 email.

“We are focusing as well on the emotional and spiritual recovery of the community through uplifting and educational programming addressing the aftermath of Harvey” at 11 Houston-area Chabad centers and another in Corpus Christi, Lazaroff wrote in the email.

Meanwhile, Sanderson wrote in a community-wide email that the money raised by L.A.’s Federation would go to cash assistance for victims, extended day camp programs for children, congregational grants, volunteer coordination, counseling and mental health services, and mapping the community and its needs.

“We need to be invested in our brothers and sisters in Houston in the long term, not just in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane,” Sanderson told the Journal.

A set of videos produced for the Houston Federation documented the flood damage at the six Jewish institutions washed out by floods.

“It’s devastating,” Bruce Levy, president of Congregation Beth Israel, told the videographer, standing in a hallway of the flooded synagogue. “There’s so much destruction, so much loss. But we have a proud and hardworking community, and we’re going to build it back up again. That’s what I know.”

Each video ends with the same fundraising pitch, the words appearing over images of buildings destroyed and Jewish texts soaked beyond repair.

“No other Jewish community in the U.S. has witnessed such widespread devastation,” the boldfaced captions read. “Harvey’s catastrophic destruction has left Houston’s Jewish community in jeopardy. We need to rebuild. We cannot do it alone. We need your help.”