President Donald Trump visiting Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 4. Photo by Michael Reynolds/Pool/Getty Images

Trump gives new hope to Jewish push for FEMA assistance to houses of worship


A tweet by President Donald Trump on Friday night, with Houston recovering from Hurricane Harvey and his sister Irma set to ravage Florida, is renewing hope among Jewish groups that have long advocated for emergency assistance to houses of worship.

“Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others),” Trump said on Twitter, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Attempts in the past two Congresses to extend FEMA protections to houses of worship had broad bipartisan support, but were stymied by the Obama administration’s concerns over church-state separation.

Jewish groups advocating for the change welcomed the change in tone.

Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, which has led advocacy for the policy change, said that Trump needed only to order the change; there was no statute barring emergency funds from going to houses of worship. Still, he said, including houses of worship as beneficiaries of FEMA assistance should be written into law.

“There’s a little bit of distance between the president tweeting and actual policy,” he told JTA on Monday. “We also want it codified in legislation.”

Lawmakers who have favored the change have included Reps. Grace Meng, D-N.Y. and Chris Smith, R-N.J. in the House  and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. and Roy Blunt, R-Mo. in the Senate. (Those bids were inspired in part by Superstorm Sandy, which clobbered the northeast in 2012.)

FEMA currently allows nonprofits such as community centers and zoos to apply for the funds.

“We’re asking for the same treatment as other nonprofits,” Diament said.

“They serve as shelters, they serve as collection and distribution centers for emergency assistance after natural disasters,” he said. “Community centers are on this list because they function as gathering places for the community and places for educational and other programs; houses of worship do that as well.”

Diament said as many as four OU-affiliated synagogues in the Houston area could use the assistance; it was too early to tell regarding Florida, he said.

The Orthodox Union is allied with religious umbrellas from other faiths in favoring the legislation, but Diament emphasized that the change has broad support, including from the Jewish Federations of North America, the Conservative movement and the American Jewish Committee, an organization that has in other areas emphasized church-state separations.

Richard Foltin, the AJC’s director of legislative affairs, said that as long as there were safeguards keeping the assistance from directly funding religious activity, expanding the assistance to houses of worship was the right thing to do.

“This is a natural disaster for which everyone has suffered and a house of worship ought not to be ineligible for support,” he said.

Among Jewish groups that usually voice church-separation concerns, the Anti-Defamation League in 2013 dropped its objections to legislative bids to include houses of worship as eligible for FEMA assistance, and the Reform movement has not raised objections.

Abba Cohen, the Washington director of Agudath Israel of America, said extending the assistance to houses of worship was common sense.

“It defies common sense or any sense of fairness to deny disaster relief to houses of worship, especially when zoos and other recreational facilities are eligible to receive such aid,” Cohen said in an email. “When disaster strikes, the stability of a community’s houses of worship and other religious entities is vital to its spirit and morale and ultimately to its ability to recover.”

Up to their ankles in rubble


Cathy Carpenter, 61, remembers waking up to massive shaking the morning of the Northridge earthquake. In her family’s home in Tarzana, almost all of the kitchen cabinets were flung off the walls, and the aftershock blew out the windows and broke the ceiling beams that supported the house’s second story.

“Our house was kind of like a movie set where the front of the house was pretty fine, but the entire back half had really been destroyed,” she said. “We were in rubble almost up to our ankles in most of the house. It was awful and very scary.”

The family stayed in their house for a few weeks, but finally moved out when they realized that the second story would shake when the front door was slammed.

However, the real nightmare had only begun as Carpenter’s family had to rent a home for almost a year after the earthquake. Because demand was so high, they struggled to find contractors and replace broken household items.

“When every house is damaged, it’s not so easy to get contractors or sinks or plumbing — everything was on back order,” she said. “So that was very hard on everybody, hard on our kids.”

They only received $5,000 for property damage from FEMA, but because they had earthquake insurance, their private insurance company ultimately paid them the house’s full value of $300,000.

Carpenter recalled that neighbors “really took care of each other” and that a newly married couple hosted a big block party in the days after the earthquake.

“Everyone brought out all the food they had in their refrigerators, because it would all go bad,” she said. “And we just sat out there and commiserated because of how awful it was.”

The family house, which they still live in, is now reconstructed, “like a fortress,” she said. Every wall is built with structural reinforcements, and the furniture is bolted to the walls.

However, the memory of the tremors is hard to forget.

“Everywhere I went, when I felt shaking I would be transported back to that morning,” she said. “The shaking was so violent and it lasted a very long time.”

Rescuers search Oklahoma tornado town ruins as recovery starts


Rescue workers with sniffer dogs picked through the ruins of an Oklahoma town on Wednesday to ensure no survivors remained buried after a deadly tornado left thousands homeless and trying to salvage what was left of their belongings.

“Yesterday I was numb. Today I cried a lot. Now I'm on the victory side of it,” said Beth Vrooman, who hid in a shelter in her garage during Monday's storm in Moore, Oklahoma.

When the winds died down, she realized a car was blocking her exit.

“It took some muscle, but I got out,” Vrooman said, as she sifted through piles of clothing, broken knickknacks and nail-studded boards that had once been her home.

The tornado on Monday afternoon flattened entire blocks of the town, including schools, a hospital and other buildings.

At least 24 people were killed and 240 others injured, but authorities were increasingly confident that everyone caught in the disaster had been accounted for, despite initial fears that the twister had claimed the lives of more than 90 people.

Jerry Lojka, spokesman for Oklahoma Emergency Management, said search-and-rescue dog teams would search for anybody trapped under the rubble, but that attention would also be focused on a huge cleanup job.

[Related: How you can help]

“They will continue the searches of areas to be sure nothing is overlooked,” he said. “There's going to be more of a transition to recovery.”

More than 1,000 people had already registered for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, which sent hundreds of workers to Oklahoma to help with the recovery.

After a long day of searching through shattered homes that was slowed by rainy weather on Tuesday, Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan said it seemed no one was missing.

“As far as I know, of the list of people that we have had that they are all accounted for in one way or another,” he said.

TEN CHILDREN AMONG DEAD

The state medical examiner on Wednesday released details on the people who died in the storm, and reported 10 children, including a four-month-old baby, were among the victims, more than the nine previously reported.

The other children ranged in age from 4 years to 9 years old. The storm's oldest victim, of those whose ages were released, was 63. Most of the victims died of blunt force injuries that were probably caused by flying debris and five of the children died from suffocation.

Most of the children were at Plaza Towers Elementary School, which took a direct hit by the deadliest tornado to strike the United States in two years.

Emergency workers pulled more than 100 survivors from the debris after the tornado ripped through the Oklahoma City region with winds exceeding 200 miles per hour (320 kph), leaving a trail of destruction 17 miles (23 km) long and 1.3 miles (2 km) wide.

The National Weather Service said the tornado was ranked a rare EF5, the most powerful on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.

STORM SAFE SHELTERS

The last time a giant twister tore through the area, on May 3, 1999, it killed more than 40 people and destroyed thousands of homes. That tornado also topped the scale.

Oklahoma Emergency Management's Lojka said 2,400 homes were damaged or obliterated and an estimated 10,000 people affected.

The death toll was lower than might have been expected given the extent of the devastation in Moore, home to 55,000 people.

Some ascribed the relatively few deaths to many people having small “storm safe” shelters, basically a concrete hole in the garage floor with a sliding roof that locks.

Billy McElrath, 50, of Oklahoma City, said his wife hid in a storm safe in their garage when the tornado hit.

She emerged unhurt even though the storm destroyed the 1968 Corvette convertible she had bought him as a birthday present, and crushed a motorcycle.

“Everything else is just trashed,” he said as he loaded a pickup with salvaged goods.

Kraig Boozier, 47, took to his own small shelter in the Westmoor subdivision of Oklahoma City and watched in shock as a fan in the wall was ripped out.

“I looked up and saw the tornado above me,” he said.

Officials said another factor behind the surprisingly low death toll was the early warning, with meteorologists saying days in advance that a storm system was coming.

Once a tornado was forming, people had 15 to 20 minutes of warning, which meant they could take shelter or flee the projected path. The weather service also has new, sterner warnings about deadly tornadoes.

Many of those who do not have a basic storm shelter at home, which can cost $2,500 to $5,000, have learned from warnings over the year to seek hiding places at home during a tornado.

Jackie Raper, 73, and her daughter, for instance, sought shelter in the bathtub in her house in Oklahoma City.

“The house fell on top of her,” said Caylin Burgett, 16, who says Raper is like a grandmother to her. Raper broke her arm and femur, and bruised her lungs, Burgett said.

Additional reporting by Alice Mannette, Lindsay Morris, Nick Carey, Brendan O'Brien, Greg McCune, Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Jane Sutton; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool

Bill granting FEMA funds to Sandy-damaged shuls sparks uncharacteristic Jewish response


How essential is a house of worship to a neighborhood?

That’s the crux of a question now exercising Congress as a bill advances that would provide direct relief to synagogues and churches damaged by superstorm Sandy last October.

The bill, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives last week by a vote of 354-72 with strong bipartisan support, adds houses of worship to those defined as a “private nonprofit facility that provides essential services of a governmental nature to the general public.”

The Senate is expected to take up the measure soon; backers there include Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has withheld funding for houses of worship, citing constitutional separations of church and state. FEMA, which fiercely opposes the bill, wrote in a backgrounder distributed to congressional offices and obtained by JTA that “churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship” cannot “be broadly considered to provide ‘essential services of a governmental nature.’ ”

Despite the strength of its House approval, the bill has stirred controversy, but the divisions are novel: Instead of the classic disagreements engendered by church-state arguments, this one has liberal Democrats disagreeing and the two major Jewish civil rights groups on opposite sides.

The American Jewish Committee joined lobbying on behalf of the bill along with a number of other Jewish groups, including the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America and the Jewish Federations of North America. The Anti-Defamation League is opposed. The Reform movement, meanwhile, has been careful not to take a position, noting its disagreement with such funding in the past but not weighing in this time.

“In general, we have serious constitutional concerns about this type of funding,” Sean Thibault, a spokesman for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in a Jan. 10 statement. “However, we recognize that this aid is, in certain respects, distinct from other forms of aid that we have historically opposed. We continue to work with congregations to help them understand the varied constitutional and policy concerns before each synagogue makes their own decisions.”

Rabbi David Bauman of Temple Israel in Long Beach, N.Y., said his synagogue suffered $5 million damage from Sandy and that the disrepair bled into the wider community. Religious school students who have not met for months recently gathered in each other’s homes for smaller tutorials — a situation that Bauman said is “not ideal.”

The local Alcoholics Anonymous group hasn't had a place to meet since the synagogue social hall was ruined in the storm. “Those people need to come together,” Bauman said, noting that he was searching for an alternative venue.

Such services are why houses of worship should be as eligible as other community service organizations, says Nathan Diament, who helms the Orthodox Union’s Washington operation.

“Already among the private non-profits eligible for FEMA’s aid are community centers, and FEMA’s definition of community centers are places where people gather to engage in educational and social and enrichment activities,” Diament said. “FEMA then decided on its own that if those activities are done in a house of worship, they are not eligible. What we are seeking to legislate is government neutrality and equal treatment.”

Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), whose congressional district includes much of the borough of Queens, co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.Y.). In an interview, Meng said she co-sponsored the bill because some 200 institutions in the New York-New Jersey region had been devastated but were still providing critical relief for neighbors.

“They were one of the first ones to open up their doors and feed people at the same time their electricity was out or their floors were ruined,” Meng told JTA.

The Orthodox Union has estimated that some 60 to 70 synagogues in New York and New Jersey of all denominations have been affected.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), whose district covers much of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, vociferously opposes the bill, which he said would amount to government funding of religion.

“This bill would direct federal taxpayer dollars to the reconstruction of houses of worship,” Nadler said in remarks quoted by NY1, a cable news channel. “The idea that taxpayer money can be used to build a religious sanctuary or an altar has consistently been held unconstitutional.”

Those concerns were echoed by the ADL in its statement issued Jan. 4.

“Houses of worship are special — not like other non-profits and not like other buildings,” it said. “They receive special constitutional protections from government interference, special tax-exempt benefits for contributions and have special restrictions that prohibit direct public funding.”

Such concerns, also expressed by the American Civil Liberties Union, are misplaced, according to Marc Stern, AJC’s associate general counsel. He noted FEMA-directed relief for a church damaged in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of a neighboring federal building, as well as relief for a Jewish day school hit in the 2001 Seattle earthquake.

“The ACLU-ADL position is a little bit odd,” he said. “You can pay for rebuilding a zoo, but houses of worship are not eligible.”

FEMA in its briefing for lawmakers said the precedents cited by Stern and others do not hold in this case. In the Oklahoma City case, the agency said, the congressional appropriation made it clear that the funding for the damaged church was a one-time exception. In the Seattle case, the money was applied to a school, not a house of worship.

“In contrast, a house of worship such as a synagogue is not an educational facility, nor does it fall within one of the other categories of facility specifically listed” under prior law, FEMA said.

Meng said FEMA easily could assess whether a house of worship was seeking funds to advance religion or to provide a community service in the same way it assesses whether homeowners are eligible.

Chanukah lessons in a post-Sandy world


Late last month, I was in Breezy Point, the isolated beachfront neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., that has become an iconic image for the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Breezy Point was hit full force twice — first by the storm’s surge and then immediately after by a fire that consumed more than 80 houses in one part of the neighborhood. 

Nearly a month later, residents could still be found wandering through the burned section, seeking remains from their incinerated homes. Looking around, I could only make out a few recognizable objects: mangled bicycle frames, tangled bedsprings, charred washer-dryer units, the occasional sink or tub. All were covered in rust. 

At the late-afternoon hour when I visited, light was fading, and the shadows were getting longer. Earlier in the day, Rockaway Point Boulevard, the main street that runs through Breezy Point, had been packed with recovery and relief traffic — trucks, big and small, many with out-of-state plates — but now the lines of vehicles had thinned. 

I’d come to visit this and other Atlantic beach towns thinking about Chanukah, which was soon approaching. Although not many Jews live in Breezy Point proper — it’s known as the whitest part of New York City, and one longtime resident described it to me as “a good Christian community” — still, this town, one of a few that got the worst of Sandy and was blasted by the surge from two sides, sits on the far western edge of the Rockaway Peninsula, a thin spit of land off the coast of Long Island that is home to many, many Jews. I’d also made stops in Far Rockaway, Woodmere and Lawrence earlier in the day, and while they were not as ravaged, it was clear that, throughout the region, celebrating Chanukah will certainly be uniquely challenging this year. 

The holiday, which starts on Saturday evening, Dec. 8, is, on one level, a celebration of  bringing light into the darkness. This year, light’s preciousness will, no doubt, be acknowledged by all: These days, when the sun goes down, the streets of the Rockaways quickly become dark, empty and cold. 

Symbolic rituals may offer only limited comfort to Sandy’s victims. Chanukah candles are traditionally lit at home, and an untold number of residents — thousands of Jews among them — are still not living in their homes, more than a month after the storm. Many whose electrical systems were damaged by flooding during the storm, particularly in the areas I visited, are still without power. 

Even many who are in their homes are struggling with extensive and expensive repairs that may not be covered by their insurance policies. Payments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can help, but for people who lost everything on the lower floors of their homes to the storm — couches, tables, chairs, beds, large appliances of all types and one or two cars — the replacement costs can be staggering, possibly unachievable. 

And yet, as I talked to people in and around the areas affected by Sandy, they displayed such generosity and resilience that, even in the path of the second-most-destructive weather event in American history, I found myself thinking that Chanukah in these parts of New York and New Jersey may not be quite so dark this year, after all. 

In the spirit of Chanukah —– and hinting at five of the holiday’s most salient themes — here are their stories. 

Light 

Rabbi Zalman Wolowik, the director and spiritual leader of Chabad of the Five Towns, wasn’t available when I traveled through his neighborhood on the day before Thanksgiving. But when I reached him by phone soon after, he told me that the Five Towns will see more public menorah lightings this year than usual. “So we can light up the community,” Wolowik said. 

Wolowik has been lighting up — and powering up — his community since the Chabad house reopened just 24 hours after the storm hit. 

“I wouldn’t call it a homeless shelter, but it became a place where people could get a meal; recharge their phone, their computer, their iPad; get a warm blanket, clean socks, Pampers, cleaning supplies,” he said. Even now, his Chabad is still distributing items to people who may not have what they need. 

Cindy and Peter Grosz, whose devastated house in the Five Towns was being gutted by volunteers when I visited, said they had visited Chabad soon after the storm. There, a tent had been set up in the parking lot, and local merchants were distributing all kinds of necessities for storm victims. The two halogen heating lamps now being used to warm the Groszes’ living room had come from that event. 

“It was as if you were buying something,” Wolowik said, “but everything was free, from clothing to household goods.”

Luck

Whenever I asked someone involved in the post-Sandy recovery effort about their experiences, more often than not I would hear some variant of this phrase: “I consider myself lucky.” 

There was Stuart Slotnick, the managing partner of the New York office of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, a large law firm. He and other lawyers recently held a pop-up legal clinic in Moonachie, N.J., to help members of that hard-hit community fill out forms to send to FEMA. 

Among the secretaries who work in his office, one still didn’t have power as of Nov. 21. Another was still heating her apartment by boiling water on the stove. 

Slotnick had to move his family out of their house, temporarily. “I only lost power for 10 days, so I consider myself lucky,” he said. 

There was Cindy Grosz, the homeowner in the Five Towns, who was visibly distressed by the extent of the damage to the first floor of her home. Volunteers from NECHAMA, a Minnesota-based Jewish disaster response nonprofit, were prying wood panels off the walls of the house and removing the lower sections of the drywall, which was soaked and had begun to grow moldy. 

Volunteers had helped Grosz’s husband pile up furniture and other large items, all of it destined for the landfill. Meanwhile, in the living room, Grosz and her husband had salvaged a few items that hadn’t been destroyed by the storm. A lot of it appeared to be glassware. 

“I’m trying to be positive,” she said. “Thank God, we’re all alive. It could’ve been worse.”

Gimel

I met New York State Assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder in Far Rockaway at 10 a.m. the day before Thanksgiving, as he, along with New York City Council Speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, was helping distribute kosher turkeys in plastic shopping bags from the side door of the Jewish Community Council of the Rockaway Peninsula (JCCRP). 

Goldfeder, who wore a kippah and a fleece-lined windbreaker, said his family of four had been sleeping “in different beds, on different couches” since the storm. They only got back into their home after Thanksgiving, about a month after Sandy struck. 

And yet, because Goldfeder represents a district that includes most of the Rockaway peninsula — 80 percent of it, he said, had been damaged either by storm or fire — he, too, considers himself lucky. 

“I think about what I’m going through, and it just means I have to work harder to make sure everyone else is taken care of,” he said. 

The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty helped to organize the turkey giveaway, one of many efforts it has undertaken since the storm; William Rapfogel, the organization’s CEO, was on hand, as was Lisa Gaon, the director of Met Council’s Jewish Community Network.

Gaon said she had been barred from her apartment in Long Beach — the building’s electrical system sustained significant damage — for more than three weeks and didn’t expect to be back in for another month. In the meantime, she and her 6-year-old daughter are staying with friends. 

“The biggest issue is the kids,” Gaon told me, “keeping them in schools and getting them to school.”

The school bus that normally picked up her daughter won’t come to the house where they are staying, across the border in Nassau County. So Gaon drives her daughter — using a loaner car from Met Council because she lost hers in the storm — to and from school every day. And instead of working out of Met Council’s main offices in Manhattan, Gaon said she had been working out of the Rockaway Peninsula location since the storm.

“I’m an easy one; I only have one kid,” Gaon said. “It’s hard for a lot of families. I don’t even talk about myself, because everybody else has it so much worse.”

Courage 

The lucky ones know they’re lucky because they’re meeting people who’ve lost everything — people like Janis. 

I met Janis, a middle-aged white woman with a gravelly voice who wouldn’t give her last name, at the Habitat for Humanity tent in Breezy Point. 

MaccabeeJanis has spent summers at Breezy Point for 57 years and has been living there year-round since 2001. She had come to Breezy Point to check on her house, which she said had been pushed about 15 feet off its foundation by the storm surge, out onto the sidewalk. 

“We’ll survive,” she said as she handed out chocolate-covered marshmallows to the other members of the Habitat team. “We’ve got Jim.” 

“Jim” is James Killoran, executive director of the Westchester, N.Y., chapter of Habitat for Humanity, which has been on the ground in Breezy Point since Nov. 2, just four days after the storm hit. 

Janis’ home is sure to be demolished — she knows this — and there’s not a lot that Killoran and his volunteers can do for her. Killoran stayed upbeat, though. 

“Just being here is a victory,” he said. “It’s not about the walls, it’s about each other.”

Norma Silva, a member of the Habitat chapter’s board who was spending her 18th day in Breezy Point, reinforced that message — that whatever help she and the other volunteers can offer, even if it isn’t much, is really appreciated by residents. 

“Some of them, I get their name and address, and then I ask them, ‘What is it that you need to be done?’ All of a sudden they just start crying,” Silva said. “Because they don’t even know where to start.” 

Gifts

So far, Habitat volunteers — a group that here often includes some experienced responders from Israel — have mostly been focused on clearing homes of flooded belongings and removing the lower drywall to expose the wooden studs of a house. It’s as if everyone in the region is throwing away half — or more — of their belongings: I saw piles of toys and furniture and sodden boxes at the ends of driveways, and one large public park on the peninsula had been converted into a temporary landfill. Among the first things Killoran brought to Breezy Point were 500 boxes of heavy-duty plastic garbage bags, knowing they’d be needed. 

GiftIn normal years at Chanukah, these people might have been considering what trinket or video game to buy for their friends and family. This year, some organizations are making efforts to help people replace at least some of what they have lost and offer a few gifts, as well. 

At the “shopping” night organized by Chabad of the Five Towns, every kid who came left with a watch. (“There was enough disorientation that they didn’t even know what time zone they were in,” Wolowik said.) At the JCCRP in Far Rockaway when I was there, a couple of staffers from a state senator’s office in a nearby district showed up with a dozen kosher turkeys and about as many comforters — all new, still in their original packaging. 

People are in need of food and new blankets, Met Council’s Gaon told me, but that’s only the beginning of what will be required. 

“Nobody has beds; nobody has a table to sit at when they move back in; nobody has a chair to sit on,” she said. “Real basic, basic stuff.” 

Gelt 

The recovery from Sandy — and, eventually, the rebuilding — will cost tens of billions of dollars. 

As of Nov. 30, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was asking for $36.8 billion for his state, and New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg each had asked for more than $40 billion in federal emergency assistance for New York state. 

GeltThe sense from those working in the trenches is, however, that those funds — and the millions being directed from Jewish organizations to the region — won’t be enough for many victims. 

Wolowik outlined some of the requests he’s received since the storm: Requests for funds from people whose homeowner’s insurance policy doesn’t cover flood damage, from people whose automobile insurance won’t cover the cost of replacing their lost cars, from people who don’t have enough money to pay their deductibles. 

“What people need most is financial aid,” Wolowik said. “With that they can do whatever is needed.” 

Chanukah begins at sundown on Saturday, Dec. 8. 


To learn more about the organizations responding to Sandy in New York's Rockaway Peninsula, visit

For those in or near the affected areas, the UJA-Federation of New York has compiled a list of volunteer opportunities here:

For an in depth list of 63 synagogues affected by Hurricane Sandy, visit The Forward here:

Building Homes, Building Hope


The prophet Isaiah asks: “What is the house which you would build for Me, and what is the place of My rest?” (Isaiah 66:1). In the days following the Easter and Passover holidays, 41 Angelenos traveled to the Gulf Coast to translate their faith into action. We were rabbis and pastors, African Americans and Jewish Americans, high school seniors and senior adults, synagogue and church members from 12 Los Angeles congregations who rebuilt homes in Gulfport, Miss.

We spent our days building and rebuilding roofs — separated into teams of eager “rookie roofers” under the patient supervision of AmeriCorps volunteers. In short order we were on the rooftop tearing off old shingles and tar paper, and replacing them with new materials. The work was hard, the heat and humidity intense. Few of us had prior construction experience, and many of us had never even been on the roofs of our own homes. But we were determined to finish “our roofs” before we left Gulfport. By week’s end, our volunteers had built six new roofs valued at $30,000 for uninsured or underinsured homeowners in the region.

The individuals and families we helped shared their moving stories of struggle and survival during and after Katrina. “Bob” described his 12-hour ordeal as the hurricane battered his house, and vowed never again to ignore evacuation orders. He lost his job at a federal facility that was destroyed in the hurricane and has no other job prospects. Bob lives day by day as he contemplates an uncertain future.

“Cheryl” is a single mom who has a job but lacks the funds to fix her leaky roof. The night before our site visit, a powerful thunderstorm blew through Gulfport and water crashed through the ceiling of Cheryl’s modest home. Our crew rebuilt her roof in one day, preventing further damage to the interior of the house. However, it will take years to heal the psychological and emotional scars borne by Cheryl and her family.

Everywhere we traveled along the coast, we witnessed heartbreaking scenes of devastation. We passed gutted churches that are now mere shells of formerly majestic houses of worship; twisted and dangling signs identifying businesses that are heaps of rubble; ruins of mansions and homes that are reminiscent of a war zone; front yards adorned with trailers whose occupants worry about how they will survive the next storm.

Through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, the people of the Gulf Coast have met with tragic circumstances. The storm robbed them of homes and livelihoods, battered their dignity and in many cases left them for dead. The people we met have lost faith in FEMA, their insurance companies, their government, and so many others who have let them down over and over again. But the Jewish and African Methodist Episcopal Church communities of Los Angeles — two diverse groups working together — had compassion on the people of Gulfport and worked together to make a difference.

By repairing roofs, we helped to bandage their stricken community. Beyond the financial contributions our groups have previously made to the relief effort, by shouldering our neighbors’ burdens, we offered something equally as important: hope. That hope was seen in the eyes of the homeowners that we served and felt through the prayers and tears they offered as thanks for our assistance.

This journey was a lesson in faith and partnership. Our partners in Mississippi included the amazing young men and women of AmeriCorps, who devote one to two years of their lives in volunteer service for their fellow Americans. Our hosts were the staff and congregants of Westminster Presbyterian Church, which has transformed itself into a 24/7 center for volunteer relief groups. One of the church elders told us that he is especially pleased to welcome Jewish groups to the church, since he is a leader in ongoing efforts to overturn the divestment resolutions of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

This mission was a lesson in spirit and fellowship. The region’s sole Jewish congregation and B’nai B’rith chapter warmly welcomed us to their annual Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) commemoration, held in a Methodist church while the synagogue awaits repair. As the multifaith, multiracial congregation read the names of Holocaust victims, we prayed that we honor their memories by building bonds of faith and friendship between Los Angeles and the Gulf Coast.

We also built strong and sure bonds within our L.A. delegation — between African Americans and Jewish Americans; between Jews and Christians and their congregations; among Conservative, Orthodox and Reform Jews and their synagogues. Too often it takes a crisis or disaster for people of diverse races, religions and cultures to draw closer to God and to one another. Sometimes it takes a trip away from home to remind neighbors to celebrate their differences and their shared destiny as God’s children.

We returned home with a pledge to work together to meet the needs of our community in Los Angeles, even as we remember the needs of the Gulf Coast. The lives and struggles of the people we met are daily reminders of the sacred mandate to rebuild our broken world. We will not rest until the community has healed.

On June 4, the first Sunday of the 2006 hurricane season, churches and synagogues throughout Louisiana and in all cities with major concentrations of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita evacuees will join together in remembrance of those who were lost and to raise awareness of those still missing from the storms. For more information, e-mail findfamilypio@dhh.la.gov.

The Rev. Kevin Taylor is associate minister of Grant AME Church in Los Angeles. Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. The Mississippi trip was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, The Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee and the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Ministerial Association.

 

Their Spirit Survives


It was hard to be in Los Angeles in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, perhaps the biggest natural disaster in our history. I had some previous Red Cross training, and, with some additional fast-track prep on disaster response, I was on my way to Louisiana — first by plane to Houston, then by car to Baton Rouge.

Lodging on one of the first nights was the floor of a church gymnasium. At times, I felt like I was part of a sad “Amazing Race,” hurrying throughout Louisiana to provide some assistance to some of Katrina’s victims.

Then, when teamed with a fellow mental health professional from Utah, I felt like a modern-day civil rights’ worker, driving through such small towns as Bunkie, Mansura and finally to Marksville, La. Marksville, in the heart of Avoyelles Parish in central Louisiana, hardly has a downtown. There’s a WalMart and two gaming casinos — one on Indian property — on the neighboring highway.

As the first on-site Red Cross volunteer workers in the Marksville area, we had to do some of everything. Initially, we checked on several local shelters to make sure the needs of evacuees were being met. Then, we were able to concentrate on our main focus — to provide counseling to the hundreds of displaced families from New Orleans and surrounding communities who were staying in these shelters.

Most of those staying at the local shelter were extremely poor, and were so even before the hurricane. Some literally had no money, no place to go, with all their belongings in a box by their cot.

Many originally had no idea of the magnitude of the disaster. When they left their homes — and some only did so reluctantly — they believed that they would be able to return after two or three days.

One tearful older couple blamed themselves for taking only the family truck and little else. Most were dealing with shock, loss, sadness and gradually with the reality of the magnitude of the situation and what to do next. This reality was accentuated when families were encouraged to register their children for school in the cities where they were sheltered.

One wonderful lady had recently retired to take care of her elderly mother. Now she has no home — and no city.

“I thought I had the rest of my life all planned out and quite well,” she told me. “Now I have to start all over again. And I don’t even know where I am going to end up living.”

One man I met was more concerned about finding a place for his two dogs than for himself.

Some evacuees expressed frustration and anxiety over the slowness in getting FEMA-type assistance, but they seemed more universally outraged at the looters who further destroyed their homes and terrorized their city. Instead of waiting for government assistance, many of these storm victims have already begun trying to find housing and jobs. They are striving, as quickly as possible, to leave the shelter and become self-sufficient again.

I was struck by an incredibly strong sense of family — this included the sadness of not knowing whether loved ones were still alive, and the struggle to reunite with loved ones who sometimes ended up at shelters in different states. I also couldn’t help but notice that some young mothers were little more than children themselves.

The outpouring of support from the people of central Louisiana to maintain these shelters is heartwarming and even amazing. They know the true meaning of tzedakah (charitable giving).

I met one dentist and his wife who were working day and night to tend to almost 200 shelter residents, even though they both have full-time jobs. One minister in Tennessee contacted a shelter and offered to sponsor two or three families, letting them live with or near his family as he helped them get jobs.

With the help of local citizens, these shelters have become full-functioning communities almost overnight. One shelter took an empty warehouse and turned it into a temporary home for almost 450 people.

There are doctors and nurses who come in on a daily basis to tend to medical needs and provide medications. Barbers and beauticians provide haircuts, children get trips to the zoo and adults are ferried to the library.

I was struck by the resilience and indomitable spirit of the shelter residents. One woman who works full time at the shelter was herself displaced from her home in New Orleans and was trying to locate her husband. When I asked who was helping her, she just smiled and said that she wanted to help others first.

“The Lord will take care of me,” she said.

So many of the homeless echoed the confident faith of these words. So many say they feel blessed that their lives were spared.

“They’re going to build a better New Orleans,” one man said.

People are making do with humor and hugs. At one point, I pulled up an aluminum chair to sit near a woman’s cot.

“This is my office,” I told her.

“And this is my house,” she replied with a twinkle.

These hard-pressed people face many trying months, but they showed me they have the strength and determination to rebuild their lives.

Richard Sherman, a clinical and consulting psychologist in Tarzana, is president of the L.A. chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition and past president of the L.A. County Psychological Association.

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