Recruiting Jews to the Cause of Persecuted Yazidis, One Synagogue at a Time


After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Yotam Polizer, co-CEO of the disaster relief organization IsraAID, called his friend Haider Elias in Houston to see if IsraAID could help him.

Instead, Elias countered with his own proposition: His home was spared by the flooding, so he and half a dozen members of his religious community — a Middle Eastern ethnic group called the Yazidis — offered to work alongside IsraAID packing possessions and removing debris from flooded Jewish homes.

“There is really a shared destiny,” Polizer told an audience on Sept. 17 at University Synagogue in Brentwood, sitting next to Elias. “There is a unique partnership between the Yazidis and the Jews.”

Because of their historical proximity to genocide, American Jews are a prime target for Elias’ effort to lobby the United States government to come to the aid of this ancient religious sect as it struggles with an ongoing genocide at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

During two trips to Los Angeles last month, Elias addressed the local Jewish community in a series of synagogue visits, private dinners and High Holy Days appeals, hoping to mobilize them to lobby the United States on behalf of displaced and enslaved Yazidis. With Yazidis a population of well under 10,000 in the United States, Elias is increasingly relying on Jews to join the ranks of his supporters.

“As soon as we talk to a Jewish community member, they understand it right away,” Elias said in a phone interview after he returned to Texas. “They absorb it. They relate. They know exactly what is happening. It’s very hard for some other communities to understand.”

The Jewish community has loomed large on his recent travel schedule. In late July, Elias flew to Israel and visited Yad Vashem with fellow Yazidi activist and former sex slave Nadia Murad.

In September, he spoke on four panels in West Los Angeles with Polizer, whose group has offered aid and counseling to Yazidis in Iraq and Europe, and Rabbi Pam Frydman, an activist who heads the Beyond Genocide Campaign for the Board of Rabbis of Northern California. All four panels were co-sponsored by the Jewish Journal.

Returning to Los Angeles on Yom Kippur, Elias spoke at Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills. In muted tones from the lectern, he described the events of Aug. 3, 2014.

In a single day, ISIS overran the Yazidi homeland in the Sinjar region of northern Iraq, murdering nearly 6,000, Elias said, including his 24-year-old brother, two of his cousins and nearly 50 close friends.

ISIS fighters loaded thousands more Yazidis onto trucks, with women and girls destined for sexual enslavement and young boys due to be brainwashed as child soldiers. About half a million Yazidis were driven from their homes, ending up in displaced persons’ camps where hundreds of thousands still live in tents.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish Regional Government has prevented Yazidis from returning home with any food, medicine and supplies that would enable them to rebuild their lives, Elias said.

Elias grew up in Til Azir, a small city of 28,000 Yazidis in the Sinjar region. Today, it’s a ghost town.

He followed news of the genocide from Houston, his home since 2010 after earning a visa for his work as a U.S. Army translator.

His home in Iraq was ransacked down to the windows and doorframes.

At the time, he was studying toward an undergraduate degree in the hope of becoming a doctor. But shortly afterward, he abandoned his medical ambitions to start Yazda, a lobbying and advocacy group based in Lincoln, Neb., where most American Yazidis live (yazda.org).

Elias engages audiences on a frenzied schedule. Between his two L.A. engagements last month he flew to New York and San Francisco, stopping each time for a brief layover in Houston.

To some extent, his efforts have succeeded. In the days after the genocide, demonstrations and lobbying in Washington, D.C., by Elias and others helped persuade President Barack Obama to launch strategic airstrikes that enabled Yazidis to escape an ISIS siege.

In March 2016, following lobbying efforts by Yazda and Frydman’s Beyond Genocide Campaign, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution recognizing the Yazidi genocide.

Now, Frydman and Yazda are pushing for Congress to pass the Justice for Yazidis Act, which would extend psychosocial support and speed refugee resettlement for Yazidis and other persecuted minorities in Iraq.

Elias said his work takes its toll. Each time he speaks to an audience, it traumatizes him anew.

He drew a contrast with his previous occupation as a translator.

“Translators, they’re like instruments,” he said. “They transfer the words. Most of the time they’re too busy to feel the information. If you’ve gone through something, it’s different.”

“It affects you,” he added. “And if it doesn’t affect you in the moment, it has its negative impact soon after, in the future. It makes you different.”

With all of his speaking engagements, Elias has little time to see his wife and three children, ages 16, 14 and 6 years old, and little leisure time for himself. Once a film buff, he hasn’t finished a film since August 2014, he said. His mind always returns to the massive amount of work on his docket.

His work also impacts his children. “Their daddy is not around most of the time,” he said.

Elias said his children understand why he’s gone so often. When other kids ask what their father does, “they say nothing directly,” he said. “They say he’s helping people.”

Piles of ruined books from United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston. The congregation lost many of its prayer books and replenished them through donations. Photo courtesy of United Orthodox Synagogues

How Houston’s synagogues are handling the High Holy Days after Harvey


A few weeks ago, Holly Davies was getting ready to homeschool her kids and preparing the family for the High Holy Days. When Hurricane Harvey hit, she helped evacuate 150 people from her neighborhood by airboat and shelter nearly 100 people in a local church.

Then came the hard part.

For the past three weeks, Davies has been leading a force of up to 300 volunteers who have mobilized to repair homes and synagogues in and around the heavily Jewish housing development of Willow Meadows. Davies has spent September  coordinating teams who are clearing Sheetrock, stripping floors, preventing mold and distributing aid.

Her volunteer operation is headquartered in Beit Rambam, a Sephardic synagogue that was spared flooding, and has helped rehabilitate the homes of about 100 families. But Davies is also helping lead the effort to make sure those families have a place to pray when Rosh Hashanah begins Wednesday.

“It’s very important for the community to have their central worship place, to not feel fragmented, not only in their homes but in their community,” she said. “A lot of people are staying with friends or other people in the community.”

As the entire Houston area recovers from Harvey, synagogues face the added difficulty of drying out their buildings days before the holiest and busiest days of the year. Three large synagogues sustained substantial damage from the flood, forcing them to improvise, relocate or make do with whatever floors, books and ritual objects remained intact.

“There was not any part of the synagogue that was immune to the flooding,” said Rabbi Brian Strauss of Beth Yeshurun, a Conservative congregation. “There was water covering the first seven rows of the sanctuary. You couldn’t even see the seats.”

Strauss said his synagogue sustained about $3 million worth of damage. Along with cutting out floors, cabinets and Sheetrock, and disinfecting the building — the basics of flood recovery — the synagogue will have to bury nearly 1,000 holy books that were ruined in the flood. The synagogue will set up a Harvey memorial at the burial space.

United Orthodox Synagogues, another Houston congregation, had up to six feet of flooding in some places and also lost most of its prayer books. Congregation Beth Israel had damage in its sanctuary, mechanical room and offices. No Torah scrolls were damaged at any of the congregations, as they were in high places when the flooding began.

United Orthodox isn’t sure if the building can ever be completely repaired, while Strauss is shooting for his building to be back to normal for the High Holy Days — in 2018. In the meantime, the synagogues have found makeshift solutions. United Orthodox’s 300-some families have been praying, meeting and eating in a large social hall that avoided the worst of the water. The synagogue has also had hundreds of new prayer books donated from publishing companies and synagogues outside Houston, including 400 machzors, or High Holy Days prayer books.

A room in United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, stripped of its furniture and floors. (Courtesy of United Orthodox Synagogues)

Beth Yeshurun has been holding bar and bat mitzvah services in a nearby high school auditorium, and otherwise has joined with Brith Shalom, a nearby Conservative synagogue that was not flooded. For the High Holy Days, Beth Yeshurun will be meeting at Lakewood Church, a Houston megachurch that’s donating its space and support staff. To give the building a Jewish feel, Beth Yeshurun will be projecting photos of its artwork on the church’s walls.

“Everyone is being incredibly cooperative and patient,” said Rabbi Barry Gelman of United Orthodox Synagogues. “This is an incredibly responsive community. Despite this, we’re really looking forward to a beautiful Rosh Hashanah.”

The rabbis have handled their synagogues’ recovery while also dealing with personal crises. Both Gelman and Strauss had flooding in their houses. Gelman, along with a few dozen Jewish families, has moved to an apartment complex near the synagogue that he now calls a “kibbutz.” Other religious families are hosting displaced neighbors who want to stay within walking distance of their synagogues.

“There’s a lot of expenses, there’s the physical upheaval, the emotional upheaval,” Gelman said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, stress. The human cost of this is really unimaginable and ongoing.”

Houston’s Jewish community has also been buoyed by outside donations. Aside from approximately $9 million raised by the local federation, Israel pledged $1 million in aid, and the Orthodox Union and Chabad also sent money and volunteers.

A kosher barbecue food truck from Dallas drove down and has been making up to 1,000 meals a day, and three kosher caterers from Dallas also sent meals to Houston’s Jews. Seasons, a kosher supermarket chain, and Chasdei Lev, a charitable organization in New York, sent trucks of kosher perishable items and dry goods, including clothes. Two Israeli wineries, Golan Heights and Galil Mountain, donated 100 crates of wine to Houston Jewish institutions.

“Food is getting semi-back to normal,” said Tzivia Weiss, executive director of the Houston Kashruth Association.

Weiss said that while donations are plentiful, people are hesitant to take them because they “want to feel like people that can go to stores and buy their own clothes.”

The flood has also affected what’s usually troubling rabbis the most ahead of High Holy Days — their sermons. Strauss, who was going to talk about pressures affecting teens and young adults, will instead be discussing his family’s personal experience during Harvey and how to avoid fixating on material possessions. Gelman will talk about the connection between homelessness and repentance, as well as how to respond to the flood while thinking of the future.

“I’ll talk about long-term thinking, and not relying on short-term answers to life’s difficulties,” Gelman said, describing his Rosh Hashanah sermon on the second day. “Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the birthday of the world. We see this as an opportunity for our own rebirth.”

After the flood: A tale of two synagogues in Hurricane Harvey’s wake


The extraction team gathered in the parking lot of Congregation Beth Yeshurun as the waters rose in Houston, 13 men and boys braving the flooded roads in their SUVs.

Inches of rain from Hurricane Harvey had collected in the synagogue’s lobby, with its display cases holding Judaica that dates back centuries. Things were more dire in the main sanctuary, with tiered seating for more than 3,000, where the water level was more than 4 feet high at the base of the bimah.

[Hurricane Harvey: How you can help]

Being careful not to slip, the group approached the holy ark to carry the 25-plus Torahs to safety.

“It had to be done, now,” said Gary Swartz, a 46-year member and past president of the Conservative synagogue, among the nation’s largest with more than 2,000 families.

The Torahs’ rescue took place Aug. 27, the second day of a  historic storm that dropped more than 50 inches of rain on some sections of southeast Texas. Swartz had called some friends, along with his son and son-in-law, to undertake the extraction. Swartz’s grandson, who became a bar mitzvah a year ago, was the youngest member of the rescue party.

“I said, ‘You need to come to the shul — now. We’ve got to get those Torahs out — now.’ We met at 3 o’clock and we started schlepping, and we were gone before 4. The flooding never got worse in there, maybe inches, but the moisture and the humidity and the smell was” — he paused for a moment, reaching for the right word — “special.”

“Everything in the world was in that water,” Swartz said over the phone. “Raw sewage — you had everything.”

The men removed the Torahs one by one, wrapping them in garbage bags and using umbrellas to keep them dry as they shuttled the scrolls to the parking lot. They returned to clear out the Torahs from the other prayer spaces, more than two dozen altogether, so they could be stored, high and dry, in private residences.

It likely will be months or more before the scrolls can return home.

A flooded prayer hall at the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston. Photo courtesy of Robert Levy

 

Brays Bayou, a slow-moving waterway that runs 31 miles east-west across metropolitan Houston, cuts less than 1,000 yards from the synagogue, separating Meyerland and Willow Meadows, two hubs of Houston’s Jewish community on the west side of downtown. During the storm, parts of the waterway quickly turned into a lake, inundating Congregation Beth Yeshurun on the north bank and the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston (UOS), located about 500 feet from the bayou to the south. (A Reform temple about 3 miles down the bayou to the west, Congregation Beth Israel, also was flooded.)

Together, Congregation Beth Yeshurun and UOS sustained an estimated $10 million in damage. As repairs begin that could take longer than a year, the wreckage of the two synagogues provides a snapshot of the larger community’s devastation and the determination of Houstonians to take the first steps in the long, slogging return to normalcy.

Shortly after the floodwaters receded, Rabbi Barry Gelman drove out of the parking lot of UOS, onto the leafy streets of Willow Meadows. As he passed a pile of drywall that had been ripped out of the synagogue, he turned a camera onto the nearby homes.

“As I drive out of the shul and through the neighborhood, you’ll be able to see the remnants of people’s lives as they are strewn all over the yards in the front of everyone’s houses,” he says in the video.

A cheerful blue sky throws into sharp relief the piles of wreckage on the front lawns of ranch-style homes below — furniture and personal belongings waiting to be hauled away. As he passes a particularly hard-hit block a two-minute walk from the synagogue, he calls out some of the items he sees — “couches, dining room tables, dressers, recliners, mattresses, rocking chairs, lamps, headboards, art” — until he comes to his own home, similarly disemboweled of its ruined contents.

Even as the flood victims ripped apart their homes so they could start the recovery, some of the first rituals of daily life to come back were the morning and evening minyans, daily prayer quorums of 10 or more.

As soon as the roads became passable after the hurricane, UOS members gathered in private homes and at the nearby Robert M. Beren Academy so that those who lost loved ones in the past year could recite the mourning prayers for their dead.

Torahs rescued from Congregation Beth Yeshurun are stored in a dry room in a private home. Photo courtesy of Congregation Beth Yeshurun

“You’re pushed into a sense of helplessness when water’s coming in and there’s nothing you can do to stop it,” said Robert Levy, a member of the executive committee at UOS. “To be able to be together, to daven three times a day, to look forward to Shabbat, is incredibly important.”

After floods in 2015 and 2016, the congregation built a social hall on higher ground in which to gather after crippling storms. During Harvey, however, it took on a foot of water — still better than the 5 or 6 feet in other parts of the synagogue. Photos from the aftermath show chairs and tables overturned, books spilled from shelves and a swamp of greenish water covering much of the floor space. Members managed to remove all but one of the shul’s Torah scrolls, and the floodwaters crested just before they reached the one that had been left behind.

By Shabbat, a week after the flooding started, the social hall at least had been returned to a serviceable condition.

The drywall had been ripped out and the room smelled a bit like bleach, Levy said, but some 200 people gathered, anyway. An old, portable ark had been salvaged, and folding tables served for the weekly reading, with congregants following along in photocopied packets — the Chumashim had been washed out. A number of community members read the gomel prayer, traditionally recited after a brush with death.

For Levy, it was difficult to pause for the traditional day of rest. His house had flooded; in addition, he was helping a friend who, unlike more seasoned storm veterans, saw his home flooded for the first time and was struggling. But Shabbat turned out to be a welcome reprieve from the seemingly endless slog, Levy said.

Contractors had been showing up at his home before 7 a.m. all week and staying late. By Saturday, Levy was sleep deprived. His neighbors hosted him for a Shabbat lunch but took mercy and excused him when they saw him nodding into his meal. Levy spent most of the afternoon sleeping.

“You recharge and then you move on,” he told the Journal by phone on Sept. 3, a Sunday. “And we all needed that. We needed the chance to have a break, to think about things, to start the healing process — in particular, that was important.”

For Congregation Beth Yeshurun, an easy 20-minute walk from UOS, Sept. 2, a Saturday, meant a bat mitzvah. The celebration couldn’t take place at the synagogue, which was still a disaster zone, and had to be moved to a nearby synagogue. Before normal functioning can resume at Congregation Beth Yeshurun, all the chairs have to be removed and replaced, the custom wood wall paneling stripped out and 100,000 square feet of carpet swapped out.

“It was absolutely mind-numbing and heartbreaking,” Larry Finder, an attorney and longtime member of Congregation Beth Yeshurun, said of the scene he encountered while helping to rescue the Torahs. “We’re not going to be able to have High Holy Day services there. We’re not going to have Shabbat services there.”

The daily minyan Finder attends in one of the auxiliary prayer spaces had been moved to private homes as repairs proceed. “I don’t know when we’re getting back in,” he said. “I don’t think anybody knows.”

Volunteers organize relief supplies at the Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston. Photo courtesy of Robert Levy

 

About a mile to the north of Congregation Beth Yeshurun, Congregation Brith Shalom, led by Rabbi Ranon Teller, agreed to take in the displaced congregation for the Sept. 2 festivities. The family of the bat mitzvah girl, Rachel Rosenberg, had been stranded in Atlanta during the storm but managed to make it back late in the week, even though their out-of-town guests couldn’t, the Houston-based Jewish Herald-Voice reported.

“After speaking to our rabbi on Tuesday [Aug. 29], we agreed that in the Jewish religion, we go through with simchas and other important life-cycle events even during difficult times, such as these,” Jeffrey Rosenberg, Rachel’s father, told the paper.

“The show must go on,” he said.

The two Conservative synagogues have long enjoyed a close relationship, said Congregation Beth Yeshurun Senior Rabbi David Rosen. But the storm offered a “wonderful opportunity to us to strengthen our bond and be with one another during this time of loss and sorrow for our entire Jewish community and the city of Houston,” he said.

As the Rosenberg bar mitzvah kicked off Friday night, Sept. 1, Congregation Brith Shalom invited members of its sister synagogue to a free Shabbat meal there. The next morning, the building was crowded with congregants of both shuls, Rosen said.

“What was interesting and delightful was discovering how many of us knew them and how many of them knew us,” he said. “There reached a point where I couldn’t remember with many people if they were my members or Rabbi Teller’s.”

Efforts to rehabilitate Congregation Beth Yeshurun were hampered by the fact that many members, staff and clergy were struggling through their own personal tragedy and loss.

“We can’t ask people to come away from their own flooded homes and the flooded homes of their family and friends and neighbors to come here because our priority is still them,” said Rabbi Sarah Fort, a new addition to the synagogue’s clergy who moved to Houston recently from Los Angeles. “It’s the people that make up Beth Yeshurun, not the building.”

Swartz, the shul’s past president who helped coordinate the Torah rescue, said preliminary estimates of damage to the building ran as high as $5 million. At the day school attached to the synagogue, floods washed out textbooks, chairs, desks, electronics, students’ schoolwork and musical instruments, causing as much as another $3 million in damage.

“There’s not enough Clorox in the world to clean all that up,” Swartz said.

The school has started a relief fund to recoup its losses, which total significantly higher than its annual budget, Swartz said. The synagogue also opened a fund to cover its damages.

Among the largest jobs to be undertaken in the first days after the storm was the removal of damaged books. More than 1,000 prayer books were taken from the main sanctuary alone, Fort said, in addition to those removed from the other prayer spaces and the clergy offices, some of the books dating to the founding of the 120-year-old congregation.

“Rabbis like big, heavy Jewish books, so as you can imagine, there’s a lot of them,” Fort said.

Because Jewish law mandates that books containing the Hebrew name of God be buried, the synagogue plans to dig a massive genizah — a graveyard for books — in the grassy field that normally serves as an overflow parking lot, according to the rabbi.

For Fort, a recent graduate of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, the storm comes as a trial by water in her first month on the job. Congregants had been apologizing to her for her canceled welcome party, a Texas-style “Rabbi Roundup,” which was supposed to have featured pony rides, line dancing and a world champion roper.

“It’s so funny, they’re apologizing to me,” Fort told the Journal. “It’s like, ‘Your house is flooded. Don’t worry about me.’ ”

A bright spot to the storm for the young rabbi was the way Houstonians, Jewish and otherwise, came together after the tragedy.

“As the new rabbi on the block, it really shows me the kind of community that’s here,” she said, “and it’s heartening.”

“We have always been the ones who have reached out and been there for everyone else,” said Rosen, the synagogue’s senior rabbi. “And to find ourselves this time, both personally and as a congregation, being the ones who need help has given me a new appreciation for just how generous and kind and outgoing a community can be.”

Speaking by phone as he swept drywall dust out of his home, Gelman, the UOS rabbi, said he was “amazed at people’s abilities, people’s fortitude, people’s courage and strength. I’m talking about the flood victims and the volunteers. People are just showing up.”

“Sometimes it takes a crisis to unite us,” he went on. “But this is what humanity should do, and I’m seeing it literally on a minute-by-minute basis.”

Illustration by Lynn Pelkey

Etan G and his 10-year-old son, Yishai Goldman, in Houston. Photo courtesy of Etan G

Meet Etan G, the Jewish rapper who drove 1,500 miles to help Hurricane Harvey victims


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.”

Residents evacuate neighborhood left flooded by Tropical Storm Harvey in West Houston on Aug. 30. Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

Houston Jewish community ‘could take years’ to recover from Harvey


The Jewish community in Houston has seen “devastating” damage from Hurricane Harvey and could take years to recover, a federation official said.

“Recovery like this — it is a disaster larger than Katrina in terms of the amount of water that fell — we’re going to have short- and long-term recovery plans, but this is probably going to take us years to get back to where we were,” said Taryn Baranowski, the chief marketing officer for the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston.

Seventy-one percent of the city’s Jewish population of 63,700 lives in areas that have experienced high flooding, Baranowski told JTA on Wednesday. That includes 12,000 Jewish seniors.

Hurricane Harvey first made landfall on Friday evening near Corpus Christi, about 200 miles southwest of Houston. Local officials said at least 31 people are believed or suspected to have died due to Harvey, The New York Times reported Wednesday. Over 30,000 people are in shelters across the state, and rain was expected to continue in Texas until Friday, according to the Times.

Three of the city’s five major synagogues have experienced major flooding, Baranowski said. The federation is communicating with the rest of Houston’s synagogues – the area is home to 42 congregations and communities — but is focusing on helping people impacted by Harvey.

“We still have folks who don’t have electricity, we still have folks who don’t have plumbing,” she said. “It’s a pretty dire situation, so while we’re working to get those numbers, our top priority is getting people safe and to shelter.”

On Wednesday, the local Jewish Family Service said that dozens of Jewish families were either evacuated or moved to the second floors of their homes due to the flooding caused by Harvey.

Community members have seen up to eight feet of water in their houses, with some houses remaining flooded, Baranowski said.

“The majority of people have had to go to the second floor, and then be rescued from their second floor,” she said.

The Evelyn Rubinstein Jewish Community Center of Houston, the city’s only JCC, was flooded with 10 feet of water, and Jewish schools remain closed, with some experiencing major flooding.

“I’ll be completely transparent, it’s devastating,” Baranowski said. “This is a flood that no one could have anticipated it getting as bad as it did; it was a worst-case scenario. We live in a community that is densely populated in an area that got severely impacted by the weather.”

Kosher food is another issue.

“We were having an issue getting kosher food into the community for grocery stores. We’re working with some volunteer groups to get that into the community,” she said.

Chabad in Houston has been providing kosher food to some community members, although supplies were running short as of Tuesday, according to Chabad.org. The Hasidic movement is organizing food shipments, including through Amazon, for the community. The Orthodox Union has also started a Help for Houston website.

The federation is collecting donations and will start distributing them on Thursday. It is working in conjunction with the Jewish Family Service and the JCC in the relief efforts. Baranowski said the priority in donations is cleaning supplies for those returning to houses that were flooded.

Local Jewish camps are housing refugees forced to evacuate their homes, and the Israeli humanitarian group IsrAID is coordinating an aid campaign, including sending volunteers to Houston.

In the face of disaster, the Jewish community remains unified, Baranowski said.

“We are a resilient community,” she said. “People are already beginning a process, they’re banding together, they’re working with each other to help recovery.

“But we do know that recovery is going to be long, it’s going to be difficult. We can do it, but it’s going to be a process for the entire community and the entire city to get through.”

A woman holds her dog as she arrives to high ground after evacuating her home due to floods caused by Tropical Storm Harvey along Tidwell Road in east Houston, Texas, on Aug. 28. Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

Houston’s Jewish community devastated by Hurricane Harvey: ‘You’re pretty much helpless’


Michael Wadler’s tefillin were among the only things he owned that survived Hurricane Harvey.

As he was tossing objects into a trash bag before dawn on Aug. 27 while a rescue boat waited outside, he managed to grab the leather boxes, with their ritual scrolls, leaving behind other crucial belongings, such as his shoes. For most of the day, he walked around barefoot.

[Hurricane Harvey: How you can help]

Practically everything he left behind was destroyed. After the floodwater recedes, Wadler will need to find somewhere to stay and start to rebuild.

“The hardest thing is to accept help from other people, because you need it,” Wadler said, speaking from a downtown Houston hotel where his family took shelter. “You’re pretty much helpless and you need it. It’s just hard acknowledging that.”

Although the damage to the local Jewish community is obviously significant, the full extent is as yet unclear. Flooding at the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, where Wadler is a member, caused as much as $1 million in damages, even waterlogging a newly built wing designed to resist floods. Congregation Beth Yeshurun, a Conservative synagogue where Wadler’s wife teaches Sunday school, also flooded.

But even as torrential rain continued to lash southeast Texas, fundraising efforts kicked up to aid Jewish families in the recovery that would inevitably follow the disastrous flooding.

Partnering with the Jewish Family Service of Houston and other local Jewish organizations, the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston quickly launched a fundraising effort, with local Federations across the country, including The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles (jewishla.org), setting up webpages to help raise money. The Orthodox Union (ou.org) and the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston (uosh.org) also have fundraising pages.

So far, it looks like every penny will be appreciated.

“In terms of the number of Jewish families who were impacted by the storm, it’s certainly in the thousands,” said Rabbi Yossi Zaklikofsky of Bellaire, near Houston. “So this is anywhere from minor damage to the home to losing everything.”

Compared with some members of the Shul of Bellaire, where he officiates, Zaklikosfky was lucky: Only 6 inches of rain pooled into the ground floor of his home, as opposed to the 3 to 4 feet some of his congregants saw.

[PHOTOS: Heroes in Houston]

Zaklikofsky acted as the spokesperson for a group of area Chabad rabbis that launched a united fundraising appeal to assist Jewish families affected by the storm. He spoke on the phone Aug. 28 as friends and community members gathered in his home to help clean up, the vanguard of a recovery effort that will likely take several months.

The Houston neighborhoods where its Jewish communities are concentrated, including Willow Meadows, Meyerland and Central City, were among those most deeply impacted by Hurricane Harvey, which dumped months’ worth of rain in mere days after making landfall late on Aug. 25 in southeast Texas.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston estimated that 12,000 Jewish seniors live in the impacted areas, and more than two-thirds of Houston’s estimated Jewish population of 63,700 reside in areas devastated by massive flooding. Many have been displaced by floodwaters that reached as high as 10 feet, according to Federation.

With more rain expected, relief efforts were hampered by submerged highways, and the community’s needs during the coming months were not yet clear, said Taryn Baranowski, chief marketing officer for Federation, speaking on Aug. 28.

“We don’t know how and what we’ll have to spend funds on, but we know it’s going to cost quite a bit for us to recover,” Baranowski said.

That uncertainty didn’t stop Rabbi Ari Segal from encouraging his community to help.

Now the head of school at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, Segal lived in Houston from 2004 to 2011, serving as principal and head of school at the Robert M. Beren Academy, a K-12 Modern Orthodox school near the flood-prone area of Willow Meadows, a hub of the local Jewish community. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the school was being used as an emergency shelter, Segal said.

On Aug. 28, Segal sent an email to the Shalhevet community with the subject line, “Let’s Help Houston,” which featured links to various fundraising pages. “It is important as a community of faith that we support our brothers and sisters both financially and spiritually,” Segal wrote.

Speaking on the phone later that day, Segal called the Houston Jewish community “very resilient,” saying he’s heard numerous examples of people taking in their neighbors without a second thought. But Segal, who lived through severe storms during his sojourn in Texas, said that even with financial help from outside Houston, rebuilding still will pose a significant challenge.

“Even after the damage is done, even if the rebuilding process starts, even if the money’s pouring in, which, please God all of that will happen, it’s challenging for communities to rebuild themselves and kids to bounce back and live through it,” he said.

Segal said he’d received an outpouring of responses to his email from people saying they had donated.

Besides their cash, some members of the local Jewish community offered their prayers as well.

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of Pico Shul learned on Aug. 25, a Friday, that at least two members of his congregation had family members in Houston. On Sunday morning, he organized a prayer vigil to follow regularly scheduled Sunday services, where members of Pico Shul recited psalms while praying for the safety of those trapped by the storm.

“I believe in the power of prayer,” Bookstein said on Aug. 28. “Most of the families whose members were stranded on Sunday were rescued as of this morning. You know, we’re grateful.”

In one of the hardest hit areas of Houston, two jet skis pass on flooded roads.

Houston Jewish Relief Info


Don’t just sit there – your prayers and donations are needed!

Please help our brothers and sisters in Houston hit hard by this storm. Many of us here in Los Angeles have friends or family that are stranded in and around Houston. And the storm is still raging. (Below are pictures from their family’s streets.)

Jewish families that are in public shelters don’t have easy access to Kosher food, and other Jewish services.

Many might be stranded, homeless for months.

Hundreds of volunteers are needed to help in the aftermath of the storms.

From a distance it is a challenge to know how to help – but as Jews we believe that Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh l Zeh – all of us are responsible for the safety and well being of everyone else.

Please increase your prayers and please donate locally in Houston to help!

Click here for a list of contact numbers and places to donate.

You can send us updates if you have them to: relief@picoshul.org

This Jewish neighborhood in Houston is several feet under water – and its not getting better. August 27, 2017.

View from the the front lawn of a Jewish family’s home in Houston, August 27, 2017.

 

 

Residents wade through flood waters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas, on Aug. 27. Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

Dozens of Jewish families displaced by ‘catastrophic’ flooding in Houston


Dozens of Jewish families in Houston were either evacuated or moved to the second floors of their homes due to flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey, the local Jewish Family Service said.

Some 150 neighborhood blocks in the city that are home to members of the Jewish community have been damaged in floods as part of the hurricane, the JFS said in a conference call with community leaders, the Texas Jewish Herald-Voice reported.

Many of the families affected by the floods also were flooded out in 2016 and 2015. Some of the families have flood insurance and others do not, according to the report.

The Evelyn Rubenstein JCC reported suffering flood damage. Prior to the hurricane it had collected emergency supplies and will serve as a distribution center for the community. The Jewish Family Service also reported flood damage, as did at least three Houston synagogues.

More rainfall and flooding are expected in the coming days.

The Jewish Federations of North America opened an emergency relief fund to support communities and individuals in Houston, San Antonio, Galveston, Corpus Christi and other areas in Texas that have been hammered by Hurricane Harvey.

The hurricane first made landfall on Friday evening near Corpus Christi, about 200 miles southwest of Houston.

At least three people have been confirmed dead in the flooding.

On Monday morning, Harvey’s center was entering the Gulf of Mexico, according to the National Hurricane Center.

“Catastrophic and life-threatening flooding continues in southeastern Texas and flash flood emergencies are in effect for portions of this area,” it warned.

The update said that an additional 12 to 25 inches of rain are expected to accumulate through Friday over the upper Texas coast and into southwestern Louisiana, with some isolated areas receiving up to 50 inches of rain, including in the Houston-Galveston metropolitan area. It also warned of possible tornadoes over the next day.

More than two feet of rain fell between late Saturday night and late Sunday night. City residents who were not in a safe place were evacuated from their homes by boats and helicopters. Many were taken to makeshift shelters, since the emergency shelters prepared for the natural disaster proved not to be enough.

Houston’s two main airports reportedly suspended commercial flights and two hospitals evacuated their patients. Freeways throughout the city were under water, with some flood waters nearly reaching the bottom of road signs.

President Donald Trump will visit the stricken area on Tuesday, his spokesman said.

Hurricane Harvey flooded Pearland, in the outskirts of Houston, Texas, on Aug. 27. Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

Houston Jewish Federation reports community ‘impacted’ by Hurricane Harvey


At least five people are reported dead in Houston as rain and winds from Hurricane Harvey hit the city, causing massive flooding.

“Parts of our community have been impacted by the severe weather of the past two days. We are working with our partner agencies to assess the current situation in our community and determine priority on action items. We will communicate out as soon as we know how best to move forward in the short and long-term,” the Jewish Federation of Houston posted Sunday morning on Facebook.

The post did not specify what in the Jewish community had been damaged.

Prior to the onset of the hurricane, the Federation wrote on its website that it was “preparing to mobilize a community response to Hurricane Harvey in the event it is necessary… We are here to help manage the recovery, as needed.”  The Federation said it had met with Jewish Family Service, the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center and Seven Acres – to spearhead a community-wide recovery response.

The Houston JCC announced on Facebook that it would close Friday and remain closed Sunday, with an update Sunday evening. Prior to the hurricane it collected emergency supplies for the community including bottled water, work gloves, packing supplies, plastic storage bins, heavy trash bags, heavy-duty razor blades to rip out wet and damaged carpet, cleaning supplies and gift cards for home repair stores and grocery stores, according to the Texas Jewish Herald-Voice.

The newspaper reported that homes in heavily Jewish populated Houston subdivisions were reporting flooding Sunday morning, for the third time in as many years.

A special Sunday SAT testing to accommodate Sabbath-observant high school students at the Robert M Beren Academy Orthodox Jewish day school was cancelled in anticipation of the hurricane.

The hurricane first made landfall on Friday evening near Corpus Christi, Texas, about 200 miles southwest of Houston.

The Jewish Community Center of Corpus Christi was closed Friday and Sunday, and said in a Facebook post it hoped to resume normal operations on Monday.

Congregation Beth Israel in Corpus Christi closed from Friday, cancelling all Shabbat services and Torah studies, it said in a Facebook post.

Posted by Congregation Beth Israel – Corpus Christi, Tx on Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Jewish Federations of North America opened an emergency relief fund to support communities and individuals in Houston, San Antonio, Galveston, Corpus Christi and other areas that have been hammered by Hurricane Harvey.

Several Jewish communal institutions that flooded two years ago have flooded again, but communities in the affected areas won’t be able to start assessing the scope of damage to institutions and members of their communities until the rain stops and roads become passable, according to JFNA.

Harvey, now a tropical storm, is expected to continue drop torrential rains and catastrophic flooding on the region for the coming days, according to the National Hurricane Center. Some 15 inches to 30 inches of rain are expected in the Houston area, South Texas and parts of Louisiana. Thousands remain without power.

“This rain will lead to a prolonged, dangerous, and potentially catastrophic flooding event well into next week,” the National Weather Service said.

Bomb threats called in to Houston synagogues


Two Houston synagogues received bomb threats.

The bomb threats were called in to Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue, and Congregation Or Ami, a Conservative synagogue, on Wednesday afternoon.

Both synagogues canceled Hebrew school classes for Thursday but said they would reopen Friday with more security, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The Houston Police Department, Anti-Defamation League, FBI and Department of Homeland Security all were notified about the threats, Congregation Beth Israel told the Houston Chronicle in an email.

A message on the Beth Israel website said that a congregational dinner scheduled for Friday night was canceled; it did not say if the cancellation was related to the bomb threat.

Police squad cars were parked outside the synagogues on Thursday morning, KHOU in Houston reported.

In N.Y. and Houston, Jewish communities are struggling with tragedy


The two tragedies occurred 1,500 miles apart and in much different circumstances, but both united a community in shock, horror and grief.

In New York, the abduction and gruesome murder last week of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky while walking home from summer day camp in Borough Park, Brooklyn, left the neighborhood’s tight-knit Chasidic community reeling from the revelation that the crime was committed by an apparently observant Jew.

In Houston, catastrophe struck when five members of a Jewish family driving home from a vacation in Colorado over the July 4 weekend collided head on with another vehicle.

The parents, Josh and Robin Berry, 41 and 40, were killed instantly. Two of the children in the back seat, Peter, 9, and Aaron, 8, suffered severe spinal injuries and are paralyzed from the waist down. One child, Willa, 6, escaped with broken bones and was able to speak when paramedics arrived. A woman in the passenger seat of the other car, Colleen Doyle, also died.

“The tragedy is unprecedented in our synagogue, in our community,” said Rabbi Brian Strauss of Congregation Beth Yushurun, the Conservative synagogue where the Berrys were members. “In Houston, the Berrys were beloved.”

Robin had worked as family life coordinator at Beth Yushurun, and Josh had participated in men’s club programs. The Berry children attend Jewish day schools.

In both Houston and New York, the tragedies rippled far beyond the Jewish community.

In New York, coverage of Leiby’s disappearance—on the first day his parents let him walk home alone—and murder dominated headlines for days. This week, the city’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, visited the Kletzky home to pay a shiva call.

In Houston, the Jewish community’s grief was joined by a burst of activity to make sure the Berry children are well cared for. Friends established a trust fund for the kids, local businesses held fundraisers, TV stars have sent their condolences and professional athletes have stopped by the children’s hospital beds.

Baseball all-star Hunter Pence of the Houston Astros showed up, and Wilson Chandler of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and Kyle Lowry of the Houston Rockets also came to boost the children’s spirits with a gift and jokes. Three players from Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo visited, too. An upcoming Dynamo match, already designated to celebrate Jewish Heritage night, will donate $10 of every ticket sold to the Berry trust.

“It made me really happy,” Aaron Berry said after the visit by Chandler and Lowry, the Jewish Herald-Voice of Houston reported. “I got to meet Kyle Lowry of the Rockets and his friend Wilson from the Nuggets!”

Reality TV stars Kourtney Kardashian and Brooke Burke expressed their condolences online, and Kardashian encouraged followers to donate to the trust fund.

At least $46,000 has been raised through dog washes, lemonade stands and ice cream sales organized by local children and their parents, according to Jewish Herald-Voice reporter Michael Duke, who has been covering the story. That amount does not include donations to the trust fund or fundraisers by local businesses.

“The response has given a glimmer of hope,” Strauss said. “If they walk again, it will be with the help of the community.”

While the community mobilized for the children, friends and family mourned the Berry parents. More than 1,200 mourners turned out for their funerals, and area Jews have organized Shabbat candle lightings in their memory and shifts to say Kaddish and pray for the surviving children.

In New York, community members also had mobilized to pray for Leiby, whose disappearance July 11 triggered a frantic two-day search. Upon hearing the news that the boy had been slain—the alleged killer, Levi Aron, led police investigators to dismembered body parts in his freezer and in a trash bin a couple of miles away—disbelief took hold. Community members struggled to process a murder apparently committed by a trusted community member.

A Borough Park resident named Ephraim told The New York Jewish Week that the incident was a “a double murder—one was the child, and the other is the image of a Jew.”

Aron entered a guilty plea last week to second-degree murder charges.

At the funeral, which drew thousands of mourners, Leiby’s father, Nachman Kletzky, said in Yiddish, “At least we had the merit of having him for nine years.”

The question now facing both communities is what comes next.

In Jewish Brooklyn and beyond, parents debated the appropriate age to let a child walk around on his own. Orthodox parents talked about the challenge of imparting to children a healthy suspicion of strangers, even someone wearing a kipah, without casting a pall of fear over their kids’ interactions.

In Houston, an uncle of the Berry children, Adam Berry, was preparing to move Peter and Aaron to Chicago for at least two months to receive specialized treatment. Another uncle, Matt Berry, has become their legal guardian.

At the children’s school in Houston, parents and counselors have been talking to students about the incident.

“When Peter and Aaron do come back, we will treat them as we always did,” Strauss said. “But kids are having a hard time with it. I think they’ll have a harder time when they see them for the first time. “

A Race Against Time and Floodwaters


Stepping up to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina, Jewish day schools opened their doors to evacuees, families welcomed strangers into their homes, Jewish rescue squads searched through the storm’s wreckage and Jewish organizations raised millions of dollars for those whose lives were turned topsy-turvy by the deadly storm.

Houston has quickly become a major haven for victims who have been left, for the moment at least, without homes. The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston quickly jumped into action to aid the beleaguered evacuees, Jew and non-Jew alike.

“We have mobilized our community around all the areas that seem to be current and potential needs,” said Lee Wunsch, the federation’s CEO. “There’s a lot of activity. People are very generous with their time. Our phones have not stopped ringing.”

Approximately 15,000 Louisiana evacuees were being housed in the Astrodome, the city’s covered sports stadium, after conditions in the New Orleans Superdome grew unbearable. Houston is hosting tens of thousands of evacuees, including an estimated 5,000 Jews.

The federation has joined an interfaith coalition taking responsibility for feeding the refugees in the Astrodome for the next 30 days, a service that the federal government is not providing, Wunsch told JTA. The effort will require 700 to 800 volunteers each day and is expected to cost between $7 million and $8 million.

“We’re trying to raise the money to make a sizable contribution to that,” Wunsch said.

In the first 24 hours when the fund was opened last week, the federation raised about $75,000 in online donations. Donations are coming in so quickly that by the beginning of this week, the federation had decided to hold off calculating the total until a quieter time.

The Baltimore-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation Inc. announced it would be donating $1 million to help relieve survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Funds will be allocated as $500,000 grants to both United Jewish Communities (UJC) and Catholic Charities USA.

On Tuesday, UJC said it had raised nearly $4 million, including the Weinberg Foundation grant. The UJC also said that the local federations directly affected by the hurricane were overwhelmed and had asked that those with questions or seeking to make donations contact the UJC directly.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Jews may be among those still trapped in water-inundated homes or missing in the Gulf region, said Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, Chabad-Lubavitch’s spokesman based in New York.

Chabad rescue teams, comprised largely of New York-based medics and others with relevant expertise, have rescued 32 Jews from their houses over the last several days, he said. The teams are operating both on foot and in boats.

Some elderly Jews resisted leaving their homes, as did one woman who was reluctant to leave her pets behind to fend for themselves. The teams were able to convince some victims to evacuate their homes; others stayed put.

The Hurricane Relief section of Chabad’s Web site asks anyone who knows of people still missing or trapped to provide details through the site (www.chabad.org.).

As of Tuesday, the official death toll in New Orleans was 71, and in Mississippi it was 161. However, those figures were expected to climb into the thousands as floodwaters begin to recede, revealing the true toll of those lost.

Hunger and fear of disease in affected areas engendered anger and disbelief as the federal government’s handling of the crisis garnered sharp criticism. President Bush toured the battered region Monday, comforting victims and vowing to do what is necessary to aid them. In a visit to the area last week, Bush said relief efforts to that point were “not acceptable.”

Jewish organizations in the hard-hit region and beyond pitched in to help those whose lives have been disrupted by Katrina.

Israeli universities are opening their doors to college students whose schools have been shut down by the storm. Tulane University in New Orleans announced that it will not hold classes for the fall semester. Loyola University is also closed though January, and Dillard University is examining its options for the immediate future. The two schools are also in New Orleans.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, MASA — the Gateway to Long-Term Israel Programs and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life have forged a coalition of the five major Israeli universities with study-abroad programs to allow displaced students — Jews and non-Jews — to quickly continue their studies.

Meanwhile, Jewish day school networks across the United States and across the denominational spectrum are working to absorb Jewish students and their families, offering everything from free tuition and school supplies to employment opportunities for parents and living accommodations.

“Jewish day schools across the streams walk the walk and talk the talk,” said Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network.

The UJC and local federations throughout the United States and Canada have also established funds to aid those in need. Numerous other Jewish organizations, both national and local, are also offering help — raising money, coordinating housing and looking into specific medical and religious needs of refugees in their communities.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has composed a special prayer for the victims.

“In the path of Katrina’s destruction, let the good in humanity rise to the top of the flood,” it reads, in part. “Give us strength to console those who have lost family, friends and neighbors. Give us the courage to provide hope to those who despair. Provide us with the guidance to heal those who ail, both in body and in spirit.”

At Beth Am Israel, a Conservative congregation in Penn Valley, Pa., congregants are preparing backpacks full of school supplies for young Katrina evacuees who will shortly be enrolling in the Houston public school system.

Each school bag is being filled with grade-appropriate supplies in accordance with Houston school guidelines — younger students may get crayons and markers while older pupils will receive items like graph paper and protractors.

“In terms of rallying the community, it was really wonderful,” said Gari Julius Weilbacher, who is coordinating the synagogue’s effort. “It’s giving people something to do besides writing really, really vital checks.”

Weilbacher said that she expects more than 150 backpacks to come in, and some congregants are writing checks to pay for postage, while others are donating boxes in which to pack the bags for shipment.

The Houston federation is working feverishly to meet Jewish evacuees’ needs.

A number of New Orleans families are now living with families in Houston, Wunsch said, and local day schools are allowing students from New Orleans to enroll for free. The Maimonides Society, a group for local Jewish doctors, has been mobilized to help those evacuees with medical concerns, and several local rabbis are coordinating an effort to ensure that their Jewish religious needs are met.

Synagogues in the Houston area are providing free Shabbat meals and are expected to open their doors to evacuee families, both in the immediate future and during the High Holidays.

At Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, members are making room in their homes for those with no place to go and have prepared welcome packages of toiletries, snacks and beverages. The synagogue was also arranging kosher meals for those who want them, and sent about 250 volunteers to the Astrodome this week.

The community response has been swift and overwhelming, say those involved in coordinating area relief efforts.

“I’m 150 e-mails behind,” said Adam Bronstone, who fled New Orleans on Aug. 27 and has since been working at the Houston federation office and living with a friend. “There’s one guy here answering four phones at a time.”

The situation, Bronstone said, is “crazy, it’s surreal, it’s loving, its warm. It’s the worst of times — but it’s also the best of times.”

Hurricane damage in the region was staggering. The full extent of damage to sites of Jewish concern remained uncertain. West Esplanade Avenue in Metarie, La., is home to about five Jewish institutions.

Rabbi Yossie Nemes, who rode out the storm at his home there with his family and four others seeking refuge, saw downed trees, power outages, some damage to roofs and up to two feet of water.

Those with knowledge of New Orleans geography said that based on news reports about damage to particular neighborhoods, they suspected that some other buildings, including a Jewish museum, were badly damaged or destroyed.

As Nemes, his wife, seven children and four house guests sat on the second floor of his home — winds howling outside, water rising on the bottom level, rain pelting the sturdy brick home’s protective hurricane shutters — they prayed and played board games.

“We weren’t worried for our lives,” he recalled on Tuesday from Chabad’s offices in New York, where he had arrived by car in the morning after three days in Memphis. “But it was very, very nerve-wracking. We were hoping and praying for the storm to end.”

Things grew more tense, he said, when some of the city’s levees broke. At that point, Nemes had no idea how his neighborhood would fare. In the end, the power went out and his house took in about two feet of water — but everyone got out safely.

“All the appliances and furniture are damaged,” he said. “It’s dirty, bacteria-filled water. There’s extensive damage, but I don’t believe it’ll be condemned.”

In addition to those who landed in Houston, Jews also ended up in Birmingham, Ala.; Nashville; Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Dallas; cities in Florida; and elsewhere.

Many also fled to Memphis. The Orthodox Union (OU) dispatched Rabbi Chaim Neiditch on a fact-finding mission to Tennessee.

“They’re living Jewish lives as best as they can,” said Neiditch, the director of the southern region of the OU’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth. They are attending prayer services and eating kosher food, he said, but there is a real fear that the community, stretched to its limits by the influx of evacuees, will run out of kosher food.

“There is a sense of despair and worse — every single possession is lost, jobs gone,” he said. “They are separated from family and friends. They have no means of communicating with each other. It is beyond comprehension what is going on.”

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Caouette’s Journey to Hell and Back


When gay Jewish filmmaker Jonathan Caouette was a preteen in Houston, he frequented sock hops at the Baptist church near his home. Invariably, church elders warned he was destined for hellfire: “And I would tell them that I was possessed by the devil,” Caouette, 31, said.

His tart reply wasn’t far from the truth, according to his new documentary memoir, “Tarnation,” named for an archaic term for “damnation.” The experimental self-portrait describes Caouette’s hellish childhood, during which he endured physical abuse, a mentally ill mother and brutal foster homes. The raw, hallucinatory film is compiled from 20 years of home movies, answering machine messages and snippets of underground films — all edited on a borrowed Apple computer for a total production cost of $218.32. Lauded as “a category-defying work of blistering originality,” by the Guardian and “astonishing” by The New York Times, it won best documentary at Los Angeles Film Festival and a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes.

If the movie exposes Caouette’s childhood demons, it’s also steeped in a zeitgeist obsessed with public exorcisms performed on reality television programs and cringe-fests such as “The Jerry Springer Show.”

Caouette has been turning his life into a kind of reality TV from age 11, when he first pointed a camera at himself and his relatives. He recorded family arguments and performed impassioned monologues influenced by underground filmmakers such as John Cassavetes and Paul Morrissey. In one such sequence, he portrays a battered housewife, “essentially channeling my mother, who was being beaten by her second husband,” he said.

For the budding cinephile, the camera became a “protective force field, a means of controlling and validating the family chaos,” the boyish director said from his Queens, N.Y., apartment. “It was a grand way of saying, ‘Pinch me, but is this for real?'”

The reality was that Caouette was living with his overwhelmed grandparents as his mother, Renee, was repeatedly hospitalized for acute bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder. A former child model, she had suffered mental illness since undergoing electroshock therapy following a childhood accident. During a manic period, she whisked 4-year-old Jonathan off to Chicago, where she was kidnapped and raped.

“I remember cowering under a bed while she was being strangled,” the filmmaker said.

Back in Houston, Renee went on a rampage, breaking windows throughout the neighborhood with Jonathan in tow. The boy was promptly placed in a series of foster homes where he was sometimes tied up and beaten. When his grandparents assumed custody two years later, they attempted to curb his wild behavior by enrolling him in a highly structured Jewish day school.

“But I didn’t have the attention span to sit through the long day or to retain a new language, Hebrew,” he said. “I was a mess of a child already at 6.”

It didn’t help that Caouette felt like an alien while visiting his classmates’ pristine Jewish homes.

“Our house had gum all over the floor, like a New York subway, and rat droppings all over the beds,” he said.

His wealthy Jewish relatives eventually stopped inviting him to holiday celebrations.

The discord turned Caouette into an angry preteen who staged suicide attempts and hit his grandparents. After smoking PCP-laced joints at 12, he was hospitalized eight times for a depersonalization disorder that made him feel like he was disconnected from his body and living “in a constant state of unreality.”

Former Houston Chronicle film critic Jeff Millar, who became Caouette’s big brother in 1984, remembers walking through his home and noting “broken mirrors and holes where Jon had punched through the wall.”

“I felt he might be capable of making a bad decision that could kill him,” Millar said. “But I also saw that he was innately talented and that he had a rigorous film aesthetic. I felt that if he managed to get through what was sure to be a troubling adolescence, he would do something creatively spectacular.”

Caouette proved Millar right two years ago, when he decided to turn his 160 hours of home video into a film. He had nursed Renee back to health after a lithium overdose and hoped to create a cathartic piece about their relationship.

An early version of the movie convinced filmmakers John Cameron Mitchell and Gus Van Sant to sign on as executive producers and secured a slot at New York’s 2003 MIX Film Festival. But as Caouette sat next to Renee at the screening, he worried he had made a terrible mistake.

“I wondered if I had exploited her, exploited all of us,” he said.

As patrons embraced him after the screening, Caouette began to change his mind. He now views the movie as a healing trip to Tarnation and back: “It’s the story of people going through hell and coming out OK, sort of,” he said. “It’s still not entirely OK, but it’s better than it’s ever been.”

“Tarnation” opens today in Los Angeles.

Enron Fallout in Houston


The Enron Corporation and Linda Lay, the wife of its chairman and chief executive, have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Houston’s Holocaust museum, accounting for approximately 10 percent of the institution’s $3 million budget.

Now enmeshed in scandal and bankruptcy, Kenneth and Linda Lay were to be among the honorary co-chairs at the museum’s annual dinner this March, sharing the title with various dignitaries, including President George W. Bush.

The energy company, which filed for bankruptcy protection last month after acknowledging it had overstated its profits by nearly $600 million, is at the center of a scandal in which it is accused of lying to investors and abusing its vast political clout.

Enron’s collapse and the ensuing scandal are threatening the entire economy of Houston, and its effects are being felt by local Jewish institutions — particularly the Holocaust museum — and some of the city’s 45,000 Jews.

Holocaust Museum Houston was one of many local cultural institutions that benefited from Enron and the Lays’ largess and whose future — presumably without their assistance — is uncertain.

Although neither of the Lays are Jewish, Linda Lay — who is on the museum’s board — grew up with many Jewish friends and sometimes attended synagogue with them, said Steven Johnson, a spokesman for the museum. "She really believes in her heart about celebrating diversity, being aware of the dangers of hatred and prejudice," he said.

The Lays and Enron each regularly purchased $100,000 tables at the museum’s annual dinner, and Enron was the $100,000 corporate patron of The Human Race, an annual "fun run" the museum sponsors to celebrate diversity, Johnson said.

In addition to the couple’s donations, Linda Lay reportedly raised the lion’s share of revenue for the museum’s annual dinner, according to one Jewish leader, by making "lots of calls to Enron business associates." "She was a major source of fundraising for the museum, and now that’s dried up," the Jewish leader said.

While the money from Enron "seems to be through," Johnson said Lay remains on the board and the museum is "hopeful that Linda Lay and her involvement will continue, and that we’ll continue to receive some funding from her personally."

Asked whether some might find it unseemly for someone linked to a major scandal to serve in such a prominent role, Johnson said that while "things could change," there has been no discussion yet.

"Our involvement is predominantly with Mrs. Lay and not Mr. Lay, and she doesn’t work for Enron and hasn’t had anything to do with what’s going on," he said.

The Lays also contributed $2,500 to the Jewish Community Center of Houston for its scholarship fund and made a one-time contribution of $50,000 to its capital campaign in 1999 .

Top professionals with the federation and JCC acknowledge that the Enron scandal is taking a toll on the Jewish community, but say Enron had a relatively minor role as a donor to Jewish causes or an employer of Jews. So far, local Jewish agencies are not experiencing a surge in demand for services from people who lost their jobs or retirement money as a result of the Enron bankruptcy.

"We’ve had very few if any individuals that have lost their retirement assets approach Jewish institutions for help," said Lee Wunsch, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston.

"We’re encouraging all the Enron employees who are JCC members to come talk to us about financial aid if they need to or if they are considering not continuing their membership" due to Enron-related financial losses, said Jerry Wische, executive vice president of the JCC.

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