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.”

Joel Osteen, pastor of the nation's largest megachurch, preaches at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, where services are broadcast around the world. Photo by Frank E. Lockwood/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT

Joel Osteen opens Houston megachurch to Jews whose synagogue was flooded


Televangelist Joel Osteen opened his Lakewood Church in Houston to a Jewish congregation in need of a place to hold High Holy Days services.

Congregation Beth Yeshurun was completely flooded during Hurricane Harvey and the building was in no condition to host services, according to reports.

Osteen, and his wife, Victoria, came under fire during Harvey for not immediately opening their large and dry megachurch building to shelter those displaced by the hurricane and its floods. It later opened its doors to refugees from the storms.

A post on the church’s website ahead of Rosh Hashanah read: During Hurricane Harvey, Houston’s largest synagogue, Congregation Beth Yeshurun experienced devastating flooding. This came at an especially bad time for Beth Yeshurun as the Jewish High Holy Days, (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), are this week. Beth Yeshurn’s leadership reached out to us and Pastors Joel & Victoria offered to help. We are honored to announce that we will be opening our doors to the Beth Yeshurun congregation so that they may celebrate their High Holy Days at our church.”

Beth Yeshurun is a Conservative synagogue in the Meyerland section of Houston. The congregation comprises 2,000 member families. The church seats 16,800 worshippers.

In a message to his congregants posted on the synagogue’s Facebook page Rabbi David Rosen encouraged everyone to attend the High Holy Day services.

He wrote, in part: “Some people have said to me they’re not coming to the HighHoly Days this year. They’re not in the mood. They’re tired, they’re worn out. Others are concerned it may be too much trouble going to Lakewood Church.

“My plea to everyone who feels this way is: Come. No, it won’t be the same. But come. Come and be with your people. Come and be with your rabbis and cantor. We’re waiting to welcome you and to make you feel part of this beautiful gathering, as we have for so many years. We will still be having all of our community services – Chapel, Museum Minyan, Freedman-Levit service, babysitting and children’s programming. Come. It may take a little more effort than in the past, but it will be worth it. You need it. And we need you. Come.”

Dear Friends, As the High Holidays rapidly approach, many of our homes are in a state of complete disrepair, our…

Posted by Congregation Beth Yeshurun on Friday, September 15, 2017

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.”

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.”

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.”

A Zaka volunteer has a hug for a Houston resident while helping with the cleanup in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Photo courtesy of Zaka

Israeli rescue group Zaka helping with hurricane cleanup in Houston


A team of volunteers from Israel’s Zaka search-and-rescue organization is in Houston to help with the cleanup in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

The eight-member team will be joined by four more volunteers in the coming days, the organization said. The volunteers are assisting throughout the city with tasks ranging from clearing debris to delivering food.

The Zaka volunteers were briefed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is overseeing the recovery efforts, and met with the Orthodox Union, which is coordinating volunteers within the Jewish community in Houston.

On its first 24 hours in Houston off a 15-hour plane ride, the Zaka volunteers worked to clear out the United Orthodox Synagogue and assisted with the delivery of kosher food. On Monday, the team worked with Pastor Becky Keenan from the Gulf Meadows Church.

“It was particularly meaningful for Pastor Keenan that a team from the Holy Land has come to offer help,” Zaka Chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav said in a statement.

The death toll related to Harvey has risen to at least 63 as of Monday. Zaka’s orders so far have related to humanitarian needs, though houses abandoned in the flooding are still being searched for bodies.

Zaka, which is recognized by the United Nations as an international humanitarian volunteer organization, is known for its expertise in search, rescue and recovery in natural disasters and terror attacks around the world.

The Israeli humanitarian aid agency IsraAid is also in Houston helping with the recovery effort.

Miriam Ballin, holding her baby daughter, at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of Ballin

This Charedi medic pioneered psychological first aid in Israel. Now she’s helping Houston.


Jerusalem therapist Miriam Ballin is the kind of person who takes the initiative.

Despite resistance from her Charedi Orthodox community, she became a medic. Then she launched a pacesetting psychological first aid unit. Clearly she was not just going to stand idly by while Tropical Storm Harvey flooded her native Houston.

[Hurricane Harvey: How you can help]

So on Wednesday evening, Ballin left her husband to watch their five young children and headed to southeast Texas, where she and six other Israeli mental health professionals will help locals cope with the flooding. Their work will be guided by hard-won experience responding to local emergencies, including dozens of terrorist attacks.

“I just feel it’s necessary and needed, and simply the right thing to do,” she said. “When we have 150 people who have been trained to deal with exactly this, not to send them to Houston to help out is I think wrong.”

In addition to her day job as a family therapist, Ballin, 33, is the head of the Psychotrauma Unit of United Hatzalah, a mostly Charedi volunteer emergency service based in Jerusalem. She spearheaded the creation of the unit last year amid a wave of Palestinian violence to provide psychological support to those experiencing potentially traumatic events.

The unit’s 200 or so members include medics, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers who are trained by some of Israel’s leading experts on the psychology of crises. They have responded to dozens of terrorist attacks, as well as forest fires, car accidents and other medical emergencies.

Harvey will be their first experience with flooding. For five days, the storm has deluged southeast Texas, including Houston, the fourth-largest American city, with record rains. Rising floodwaters have forced thousands of people from their homes and caused at least 30 deaths, according to local officials.

Dov Maisel, United Hatzalah’s vice president of international operations, said the message he has received is that plenty of medical and first responders are on the ground, but that with many people displaced and looking for loved ones, psychological support is much needed.

“As a small organization from a small country, we found we could make the biggest impact by mobilizing our Psychotrauma Unit,” Maisel said. “The provision of psychological support in the acute stages of trauma, from incident to seven days, is something we’re leading the world in.”

Miriam Ballin and her husband, Adam, sitting at United Hatzalah headquarters in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of Ballin)

Ballin and her six team members, all drawn from the Psychotrauma Unit, will meet Thursday in Dallas before making their way to Houston. They will coordinate with the local and federal officials on the ground there, as well as leaders of the Jewish community, which has been especially hard hit. If more help is needed, a couple dozen more members of the Psychotrauma Unit can be deployed from Israel.

American Jewish donors, many of them based in Houston, are funding the trip.

Ballin’s group will not be the only Israeli rescue workers in Houston. Ten members of the IsraAID nongovernmental organization were meeting Wednesday in the city to focus on relief work.

For Ballin, the effort is personal. She was born and raised in Houston’s Reform Jewish community and still has family and friends there. But she has since taken a very different path.

After becoming more observant in high school, she met and married an Australian Charedi man while she was attending college in New York. They immigrated to Israel in 2011. Soon thereafter, while earning a certificate in family therapy from Bar-Ilan University, Ballin became the first woman medic for United Hatzalah, whose leadership she said embraced her ambition. The service now has over 150 female volunteers.

However, not everyone in the Charedi community, where religious observance is strict and men and women have sharply delineated roles, was supportive.

“We definitely did get a lot of flak from the rabbis,” Ballin recalled. “But the way that I went about it and I dealt with it was showing time and time again the sensitivity to those that it doesn’t kind of sit well with. For example, I would never go to a call in the middle of [the Charedi neighborhood] Mea Shearim.”

In April, Ballin again worked with United Hatzalah leaders to start the Psychotrauma Unit. Her husband, Adam, a 35-year-old family physician at Hadassah Medical Center, is also a volunteer medic and member of the unit. They and their children live in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem.

“Instead of getting baby sitters at night to go out to restaurants, we get baby sitters to go out and [scan] calls in and around Jerusalem,” she joked.

Being a woman Charedi medic has its challenges, Ballin acknowledged, but she compensates by always being prepared. In addition to her blonde wig and fluorescent orange medic’s vest, she has packed kosher canned food to keep her going in Houston.

“I’ll be there with my head cover on, in my skirt, doing the work I do,” she said. “I’ll roll up my sleeves and get the job done.”

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.”

An elderly man is carried after being rescued from the flood waters of tropical storm Harvey in east Houston, Texas, on Aug. 28. Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

Jewish summer camps are reopening to host Houston victims


Three weeks ago, Lauren Laderman left Camp Young Judaea-Texas after serving as the unit head for 14-year-olds this summer.

Then Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast, and Laderman was back at camp, this time preparing the cabins for evacuees in need of a place to live.

On Tuesday, families began moving into the 180-acre facility outside of Austin.

“I want to keep the families in high hopes, knowing that they’re going to go back to Houston and [have to] figure things out,” said Laderman, 23, a recent college graduate who grew up in Houston. “But we can give them a few days of relaxation knowing they’ll have somewhere to sleep and good food.”

As Tropical Storm Harvey continues to barrage the Texas coast — deluging the Houston area, destroying property and filling convention centers with evacuees — Jewish summer camps are mobilizing to aid families by sheltering them or supervising their children.

Ten people have died as a result of the storm, a number expected to rise, and more than 3,000 have had to be rescued.

Young Judaea emailed parents and alumni on Monday evening, three days into the storm, opening its doors to families that have evacuated Houston, about a three-hour drive away. Ten families are expected to arrive starting Tuesday, and more are anticipated once families are able to leave the flooded city, where the roads are closed.

“We don’t have a lot of money but we have a great staff, so we said, ‘Let’s open it up,’” said camp director Frank Silberlicht, who had evacuated his Houston home this week after living two days without power. “For people to have some kind of normalcy, that’s what camp provides.”

Campers at Camp Young Judaea-Texas prior to Hurricane Harvey. The camp has opened its doors to evacuees from Houston, promising food, shelter and activities for kids. (Courtesy of Young Judaea-Texas)

Greene Family Camp, a Reform overnight camp north of Austin, also offered space for families to stay. But staff realized that families would be better served by an impromptu day camp for kids in Houston, freeing up their parents to go back home and survey property damage. As of Tuesday afternoon, the camp was looking for space at dry Jewish institutions in the area and aiming to open Thursday.

The camp is also providing canned goods and clothes to those in need, and a few families have taken shelter at the overnight camp, where there is staff to care for them.

“We’re going to do everything we can to support them emotionally as well as physically, keep them occupied and try to take their minds off of what’s going on,” said Loui Dobin, the Greene Family Camp’s executive director.

In both cases, the camps hope to re-create the fun, relaxed atmosphere they provide each summer. Dobin expects a couple hundred kids to attend the day camp once it opens, where they will receive meals and do activities like relay races or movie time. He hopes to arrange a pickup point for families so they don’t all have to figure out how to maneuver to the camp.

Young Judaea will house families in private guest rooms that usually serve as space for retreats or conventions. The camp has bed linens, towels and about a week of food for 100 people — it’s far enough from the flooding to buy more. In addition to beds, the camp is providing the families three meals a day and snacks.

Camp staff has also been meeting families’ special requests, from portable cribs to a few sets of dry clothing, and is planning to open a business center with computers and an internet connection. When families are not eating or sleeping, counselors like Laderman will put on programing for kids and adults, from sports and trivia games to swimming and — given the right instructor — a ropes course.

“Families will be there, but they can come and go,” Silberlicht said. “People there, they want to participate. So people can help set the table, clear the tables, help in the kitchen. People want to feel useful as well.”

Jewish institutions have been damaged by the flooding, and the Houston Jewish federation estimated that the vast majority of local Jews live in affected areas. The federation is raising relief funds and coordinating Jewish service agencies.

Meanwhile, Chabad is importing certain kosher foods that have become scarce due to the flooding and IsraAid, an Israeli relief agency, is preparing teams to deploy to the area. A few families have taken shelter at the Robert M. Beren Academy Orthodox Jewish day school.

Both the Greene and Young Judaea camps have sheltered families in previous floods and storms, and expect to remain open at least until Sept. 5, the earliest date that Houston schools may reopen — school was slated to begin Aug. 28. Neither camp knows how many people will need help, but they hope to provide safe haven, physically and emotionally, at least for a few days.

“It was hard for us to watch it from afar, so now we can be proactive and help families,” said Julia Paeglis, the director of year-round programs for Young Judaea-Texas. “We want to provide a relief and escape a little bit before they have to go back and deal with their houses.”

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.”

Residents wait to be rescued from the flood waters in Beaumont Place, Texas, on Aug. 28. Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

Houston Jewish community ravaged by Harvey’s torrential rains


Most Houston-area Jewish institutions have been flooded due to Tropical Storm Harvey and a large portion of the city’s Jewish population is living in areas that have experienced flooding, the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston said.

“While we do not yet know the full extent of the damage, we know that most of our Jewish institutions have flooded,” the federation said Monday evening in a Facebook post. “We know that 71 percent of our Jewish population lives in areas that have seen massive flooding and Jews have been displaced from their homes with flooding ranging from six inches to ten feet. We know that close to 12,000 elderly members in our community live in areas impacted by flooding.”

[Hurricane Harvey: How you can help]

As some two inches of rain fell per hour in the Houston area on Tuesday morning, according to reports, Jewish institutions were pitching in to provide shelter and relief for those affected by the storm.

Several displaced families were taking shelter at the Robert M. Beren Academy Orthodox Jewish day school, the Texas Jewish Herald Voice reported.

The Union for Reform Judaism’s Green Family Camp in Bruceville, Texas, announced Monday in a Facebook post that it would be opening up to accept former campers, congregants and friends affected by the storm. The post said the camp could provide housing, food, air conditioning, internet and electricity “for a limited time.”

Meanwhile, Chabad-Lubavitch of Texas is coordinating truckloads of kosher food to be sent to the area and will set up a kosher food pantry available to the Jewish community as supplies reach the area. Chabad emissaries in Houston have been preparing and delivering kosher meals to people evacuated to emergency shelters or who took shelter in hotels, according  to Chabad.org.

[PHOTOS: Heroes in Houston]

IsraAID, an Israeli-based humanitarian aid agency that responds to emergency crises and engages in international development around the world, said in a tweet Monday that it was coordinating with governmental and nongovernmental first responders and that  its emergency teams continue to prepare for deployment. It sent seven members to Houston on Tuesday, who were set to join three others who already were in the United States when the hurricane hit.

Homes have been without power for two days, and floodwaters have reached the roofs of some single-family homes, according to reports. At least three deaths have been confirmed, and the Houston television station KHOU reported Monday that six family members were said to have drowned when their van was swept away by floodwaters, though no bodies have been recovered.

The National Hurricane Center Public Advisory for Harvey in an advisory Tuesday morning said that “catastrophic and life-threatening flooding continues in southeastern Texas and portions of southwestern Louisiana.”

“The level of rain that we’re seeing here is biblical,” David Krohn, a cantor at Houston’s Congregation Brith Shalom, told Haaretz. “It’s diluvian rain all day and all night, rain that keeps accumulating.”

These last few days and hours have been incredibly trying times for our friends in the Houston, Galveston, Corpus…

Posted by URJ Greene Family Camp on Sunday, August 27, 2017

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.

 

 

A family walks through flood waters from Tropical Storm Harvey on the feeder road of Interstate 45 in Houston, Texas, on Aug. 27. Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

In the middle of our national breakdown, Harvey shows up


“I have covered as many as five wars on two continents,” Houston resident and reporter Clifford Krauss wrote on Aug. 27 in The New York Times, “but nothing prepared me for when the big story collided with me and my family.”

Krauss was recounting the harrowing experience of confronting Hurricane Harvey in his leafy Houston suburb of Bellaire:

“As I write this, the home that I saved my entire career to buy is flooding fast and my wife, Paola, our 12-year-old daughter, Emilie, and I have moved to the second floor with some of our valuables, food, water, and of course our three-year-old cockapoo, Sweetie, who is now barking frantically out of fear.

“It’s only a matter of time before our piano is ruined. One of our cars looks completely flooded, and the other is blocked in the garage, so it looks like we will be staying put for a while.”

Just when the country seemed to be going into meltdown after seven of the most chaotic and divisive months in U.S. presidential history, Mother Nature shows up to remind us that Donald Trump is not the only force of nature we can’t control.

I can’t begin to imagine what it must feel like to be trapped in an epic flood– roads turning into rivers, family rooms into shallow pools, stable lives into emotional wrecks.

The first question must surely be: Are our lives in danger?

I can’t begin to imagine what it must feel like to be trapped in an epic flood– roads turning into rivers, family rooms into shallow pools, stable lives into emotional wrecks.

I remember thinking about survival a few summers ago when I was awakened one Saturday morning in my Tel Aviv hotel by a shrieking siren. It was in the middle of the Gaza War. A missile had been launched by Hamas, and a man’s voice came over the hotel’s public address system telling us to proceed immediately to the bomb shelter or the emergency stairs.

During the 30 minutes or so that I huddled with a group of other hotel guests, it was the evil of human beings that was on my mind. Those missiles were coming from human beings with hatred in their hearts and Jews in their sights.

There was something oddly comforting about fighting humans. At least we knew where they were. We could predict what they would do. We knew who to blame.

It’s much harder to blame Mother Nature. What does she know? Her earthquakes and hurricanes and monsoons and tornadoes don’t come from hatred or evil. They come from the natural order and disorder of things.

But there’s a silver lining to the hell unleashed by Mother Nature. Because we can’t blame human beings for the disaster, there is a tendency to bond with our fellow humans. In the middle of rescue missions, no one cares whether you voted for Trump or Clinton, whether you’re antifa or nationalist, whether you’re black or Hispanic or Jewish or Muslim, whether you’re transgender or redneck.

When Mother Nature attacks, we’re all created equal. We’re all neighbors.

Krauss says his family are the lucky ones: “For the moment, I don’t think we are in any danger, and the three of us are keeping calm, gaining strength from the sturdiness of our neighbors.”

In a few months, neighborly sentiments will probably take a back seat to finger pointing and politics. Harvey will take its place in Nature’s Hall of Fame of calamities, along with Katrina and many others, and we will go back to complaining about other humans.

It’s still worth noting, though, that for a brief moment at least, Harvey has brought the nation together. By storming Houston, the hurricane made us all Houstonians. It has replaced our political anger with compassion, our partisan animosity with solidarity.

Yes, it’s a shame that it takes such disasters to bring out the better angels of our nature. Maybe, then, if we want to truly honor the victims of Houston, we will allow those angels to stay awhile.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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.

A view of the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Milwaukee Wisconsin, which was one of several JCCs to receive more bomb threats on Sunday. Photo from Facebook.

At least 7 JCCs receive bomb threats on Purim


At least seven Jewish community centers in the United States and Canada received bomb threats while they were hosting Purim events.

The threats, either called in or emailed, were reported Sunday at JCCs in Rochester, New York; Chicago; Indianapolis; Milwaukee; Cleveland; Houston, and Vancouver, British Columbia.

Most of the JCCs were evacuated and searched. None of the threats turned out to be credible.

For some of the centers it was their second threat in the past week.

The threats are part of a wave that has hit JCCs, Jewish schools and other Jewish institutions since the start of 2017. More than 150 threats have been received since the beginning of the year, according to the Secure Community Network, which coordinates security across Jewish organizations in North America.

On Sunday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the second such threat against the Rochester JCC in less than a week “a despicable and cowardly act” of anti-Semitism. Cuomo ordered the New York State Police to launch a more intense investigation into the threats, and to work with federal and local law enforcement on the investigation.

“Like all New Yorkers, I am profoundly disturbed and disgusted by the continued threats against the Jewish community in New York,” Cuomo said in a statement. “As New Yorkers, we will not be intimidated and we will not stand by silently as some seek to sow hate and division. New York is one family, and an attack on one is an attack on all.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said he plans to provide additional law enforcement intelligence and staffing to the JCC in Milwaukee so it “continues to be a safe place” after it was evacuated Sunday for the fourth time in six weeks.

Meanwhile, a rally was held Sunday outside the Rady Jewish Community Centre in Winnipeg, Canada, which was evacuated due to a bomb threat on Thursday, “to send a signal of unity against fear and terrorism.”

At least 8 dead in Houston-area floods, more rain falls


At least eight people have died and some 1,150 homes have been damaged in flooding triggered by torrential downpours in the Houston area this week as more rain fell in the region on Wednesday adding to vast pools of standing water.

All of those who died were found in or near vehicles that had been in flooded areas, the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences and a local sheriff said.

The National Weather Service said about an inch or less had fallen in the area as of Wednesday afternoon, keeping water high in parts of the country's fourth largest city where some roads have been turned into lakes. The Houston region had a record-setting drenching that dumped as much as 18 inches (45 cm) on some places on Monday.

Don Oettinger, a forecaster with the National Weather Service's Houston/Galveston office, said there was a possibility of more rain on Thursday.

“After tomorrow, we should dry up for a couple of days,” he added.

The weather service issued a flood watch from central Texas through Houston and into large parts of Louisiana.

There have been more than 1,200 water rescues during the flooding, with emergency crews shuttling people by boat to dry ground and picking up hundreds of motorists whose cars were caught in rushing waters.

The Houston Independent School District, the country's seventh-largest school district, said it would reopen on Wednesday after flooding caused the closure of hundreds of schools earlier this week. Some suburban school districts remained closed on Wednesday.

Heavy storms can overwhelm drainage channels that move water from Houston back to the Gulf of Mexico, particularly if the ground is already saturated.

The city faced similar widespread flooding during a storm last May and Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. 

One killed, one wounded in shooting near Texas Southern University


One person was fatally shot on Friday and another person was wounded in a shooting an apartment complex adjacent to the campus of Texas Southern University in Houston, and a suspect has been taken into custody, police said.

The school, with about 9,700 students, was placed on lockdown after the shooting and all classes were canceled on Friday. Authorities have not yet identified the suspect or the victims.

The incident came several hours after an 18-year-old student opened fire with a handgun on the campus of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff early on Friday, killing one person and wounding three, in the latest in a series of U.S. school shootings.

Texas Southern said there was a separate shooting incident at an apartment complex near campus on Thursday night.

Komen organization apologizes for Houston race’s Yom Kippur date


The Susan G. Komen organization apologized for holding its Race for the Cure in Houston on Yom Kippur.

Komen’s executive director, Ariana Higgins, told the Houston Chronicle that the foundation has learned its lesson following an outcry from the Jewish community. The foundation received “considerable community feedback,” according to the newspaper.

In its unsigned letter of apology, the organization said it noticed five years ago that there would be a conflict and tried to change the event, but that the alternate dates offered on the crowded city calendar did not suit its needs.

“Although we are aware of the message that scheduling the Race for the Cure over this important holiday may send, we must express that we did not intend any disrespect or to undervalue the significance of this holy day,” the apology said.

But Rabbi David Lyon of Houston’s Congregation Beth Israel wrote in a blog post, “Over the course of five years, any truly concerned organization would have found a better solution.”

The rabbi said that he and his wife would no longer support the organization, and would find “other organizations that accept greater personal responsibility to honor the health of all women and their respective faith traditions.”

Susan G. Komen, for whom the race is named, reportedly was an observant Jew.

The race is traditionally held the first Saturday in October, the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Some cities hold their race on the first Sunday of the month. This year, eight of the 138 races across the United States will be held on Yom Kippur, the Chronicle reported.

“We’re already looking at future calendar dates and making sure we won’t encounter this in the future,” Higgins said.

Participation in this year’s race is expected to be about 23,000, down from a high of 30,000 in 2011, Higgins told the Chronicle.

 

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.

L.A. Teens Win More Than 70 Medals at Maccabi Games


Team Westside’s luggage was a little heavier on its return flight from the Maccabi Games in Houston last month. Athletes won a combined total of 18 medals in three sports at the annual competition, which took place Aug. 5-10.

The boys’ 16-and-under basketball team took home the gold medal while one of the two Team Westside boys’ 14-and-under squads took silver. Team Westside, which sent 65 athletes total, won five medals in tennis events and swam away with 11 medals in various individual and team swimming events. 

Although the majority of the week was spent in competition, all of the athletes at the Maccabi Games engaged in a community service day as part of “JCC Cares.” On Aug. 7, Team Westside athletes created art projects with inner-city youth in a partnership with a local YMCA.  

This year marked the 30th anniversary of the Maccabi Games, which is organized by the Jewish Community Center Association. 

Though the competition is only once a year, Westside JCC Assistant Executive Director Ronnel Conn said that the Team Westside athletes would engage in social and bonding activities throughout the year, including group Shabbat dinners.

“At Westside JCC, we stress that this is not just a one-week competition,” he said. “The Maccabi Games are a yearlong experience.”

Meanwhile, Team Milken, which participated at Maccabi Games in Rockland, N.Y., and in Memphis, Tenn., also claimed a hefty number of medals. In Memphis, Team Milken took home 60 medals, including 40 in track and field events and 16 in swimming. In Rockland, Team Milken recorded 32 more medals, with 25 in swimming.

After the closing of the Milken JCC in West Hills earlier this year, Team Milken competed in the 2012 Maccabi Games under the auspices of the Westside JCC. Team Milken sent 115 athletes to the two venues.

“We had a fantastic year,” said Philip Benditson, who chairs the Milken delegations. “Our athletes had a fantastic time, and we’re very blessed to be this athletically talented.”

Holy hoops: The story of the Beren Academy basketball team


For one week, the boys basketball team of the Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston, Texas, made nationwide headlines.

The reason—they made the Texas 2A semifinals, but since the academy is Orthodox Jewish, they couldn’t play the game, which was scheduled on the Jewish Sabbath.

After a campaign and filed lawsuit, the games were moved to accommodate Beren, and their performance attracted the media, as well as the Texas Jewish community.

JTA’s Uri Fintzy spent the final four weekend with the Beren staff, students and fans.

This is the story.

Orthodox school falls short in Texas tournament


The Robert M. Beren Academy of Houston lost, 46-42, to Abilene Christian in the 2A private and parochial boys basketball state championship game.

Down by 11 points early in the fourth quarter, Beren closed the deficit to three with two minutes to play but could not cap the comeback effort.

Co-captain Isaac Mirwis and junior sensation Zach Yoshor each had 15 points to lead Beren. After a slow start, Yoshor hit a three-point shot to tie the game 19-19 at halftime.

Beren, which finished its season with a school record 25-6 mark, had grabbed national headlines with its push for a pre-Shabbat starting time for its semifinal game Friday. The Stars defeated Dallas Covenant, 58-46, to secure a spot in the title game on Saturday night after the Jewish Sabbath.

The Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, known as TAPPS, originally ruled that the semifinal game would be played at its original 9 p.m. Friday start time—after the start of the Sabbath. Beren, a Modern Orthodox school, would have opted to forefit without a change in the schedule.

But TAPPS reversed itself just hours after the announcement that Beren’s team captain, along with teammates and parents, had enlisted the support of prominent Washington attorney Nathan Lewin and filed a lawsuit against the association; the lawsuit also named the Mansfield Independent School District, whose facilities are hosting the semifinals and finals of the 2A tournament. The 2A category includes schools with enrollments of 55 to 120.

The championship game was originally set for 2 p.m. Saturday, which also conflicts with the Sabbath.

“We feel this was a success,” said Rabbi Harry Sinoff, Beren’s head of school, in an interview with the Houston Chronicle. “We got to compete in a basketball game, but the whole experience for the school was really remarkable. It brought the community together. Sometimes you don’t have an event like this to do that. We’re not pioneers. We just thought it was right for us to play. It was good for basketball.”

TAPPS in a statement posted on its website Wednesday had said that when the Beren Academy met with the association’s board in 2009 to discuss membership, it was told that tournament games are scheduled on Friday and Saturday, and that the school’s athletic director said he “understood” and “did not see a problem.”

Beren’s plight made international headlines this week and garnered support from several public figures, including the mayor of Houston, the former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). The team had earned a spot in the state semifinals last week with a 27-point victory in the quarterfinals.

Shabbat conflict sends Beren Academy hoops squad to the sidelines


Chris Cole, the coach of the boys’ basketball team at the Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston, says his squad is peaking coming off its 27-point victory in the state tournament quarterfinals.

Apparently the Stars, who with a record of 24-5 are having the best season in school history, won’t be able to show off their game in the rest of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools 2A tournament.

The semifinals are being held on Friday night and the finals on Saturday afternoon, conflicting with the Jewish Sabbath, and Beren’s appeal to change the starting times was rejected Monday by the association. Beren thus is forced to forfeit.

Beren, an Orthodox Jewish day school with 67 students, had asked the association to adjust the start time of Friday’s game to earlier in the afternoon and, if necessary, begin the championship game on Saturday evening.

The quarterfinals game against Our Lady of the Hills Catholic High School of Kerrville on Feb. 24 had been played earlier than scheduled to accommodate Beren, and the other three semifinalists in the 2A category—schools with enrollments of 55 to 120 students—reportedly were willing to follow suit.

“Just as TAPPS doesn’t schedule games on Sunday in deference to Christian teams, we expected that as a Jewish team, there would be grounds for a scheduling change,” Beren’s head of school, Rabbi Harry Sinoff, told JTA.

But TAPPS would not acquiesce, prompting Beren to withdraw from the competition. On Monday, TAPPS changed the tournament bracket on its website, crediting the Kerrville team with the victory and advancing Our Lady of the Hills Catholic to the semifinals against Dallas Covenant on Friday.

TAPPS director Edd Burleson, who declined to respond to inquiries from JTA, told The New York Times that changing the scheduling for Beren would create problems for other teams.

“When Beren’s joined years ago, we advised them that the Sabbath would present them with a problem with the finals,” Burleson said. “In the past, TAPPS has held firmly to their rules because if schedules are changed for these schools, it’s hard for other schools.”

Conflicts surrounding high school sports or academic competitions and Sabbath observance that have cropped up periodically over the years often have been resolved to the satisfaction of Jewish teams.

Earlier this month, the wrestling team from the Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago, like Beren’s a Modern Orthodox day school, captured a regional wrestling title by winning a match originally scheduled for a Saturday afternoon. Ida Crown’s coach had successfully petitioned the Illinois High School Association to have the match delayed until after sunset.

In 2009, a mock trial club from the Modern Orthodox Maimonides School in suburban Boston reached the national championships in Atlanta only to discover the competition was scheduled for a Saturday. The organizers initially balked at a request to change the schedule, but the school enlisted a prominent Washington attorney and persuaded the Justice Department to write a letter on its behalf.

Two days before the competition, the mock trial group reversed its position, permitting Maimonides to schedule part of the competition on Thursday.

For its part, Beren has managed to bring considerable outside pressure to bear on TAPPS.

Articles about the Sabbath conflict were published this week in The New York Times and the Houston Chronicle, as well as on the ESPN website. The local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League weighed in, sending a letter to TAPPS urging the association to accommodate Beren.

“Many of the private and parochial schools with TAPPS membership are faith-based institutions where religious values are a significant part of the education process and the lives of students who attend,” Martin Cominsky, ADL’s Southwest Regional director, said in a statement Monday. “We hope TAPPS officials and board members will keep that in mind when looking at future game schedules, and adjust policies to be flexible when a school’s games conflict with students’ religious obligations.”

But things don’t always work out: In 2010, a yeshiva in Washington State forfeited a girls’ basketball game in the state tournament that fell on a Jewish fast day after officials declined a request to reschedule the game.

Beren continues to hold out hope that TAPPS will reconsider and permit the team to play. Sinoff said an informal community task force has been working behind the scenes to reach an accord.

And the basketball team, which had never before competed in a state championship, launched a Facebook page and a Twitter campaign to rally support.

“We’ve had a really good year,” Cole said. “We’re always hopeful, obviously, but we’re really playing our best basketball.”

Saving Golani: An Israeli puppy’s journey from Jerusalem to Houston


A puppy born in Israel and abandoned in the streets of Jerusalem has completed his unlikely journey to a new home and new life in Houston, Texas: the final stop on a trek that began beneath the wheels of a tour bus that was parked in front of the hotel where Texas State Representative Debbie Riddle (R-Houston) and the tour group she and her husband brought to Israel were staying.

The dog’s cheerful welcome by Riddle and friends who first met the puppy in Israel culminated in an unlikely series of events that began before the Riddles even departed for their trip. The couple had debated whether Israel would be the right place to find the rescue dog they had been looking for, but without success. Riddle vividly recalls the reaction of husband Mike, a Houston estate attorney, who thought he had settled the matter with his unqualified declaration, “No, no, no. We are not going to do that.”

Looking back, though, Debbie – attractive and petit, but a determined and experienced politician now in her fifth legislative session at Austin – insists with a knowing grin that she didn’t go against her husband’s wishes at all because, “We didn’t really find him—he found us.”

An animal lover and horse breeder, Mike didn’t really stand a chance. The puppy was cowering beneath the wheels of the tour bus after being ejected from its mother’s owner’s home. “He was abandoned on the streets right in front of the hotel and he was going to die because he was under the bus. There were a lot of tour buses around and he would have been squished,” Debbie recalls. Besides, she adds, “He immediately took to me.”
Hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats are abandoned each year on the streets of Jerusalem alone. A fortunate handful are adopted by foreign residents willing to go through the time and expense of enlisting organizations that handle the bureaucratic red tape involved in relocating animals – details far more complicated than having the animal vaccinated and brought on-board someone’s flight home.

Dr. Eytan Kreiner, CEO of Terminals4Pets, the veterinarian who handled Golani’s arrangements, told The Media Line that “the first thing to be done after determining that the animal is in good health is to determine what regulations in Israel and in the destination country apply.” In the Riddles’ case, even though, as Dr. Kreiner said, “you could see from the first moment…that he’s physically in good shape…he’s happy… the only thing he wants is attention, attention, to be around people,” it would be a month of vaccinations and examinations along with a trip to the Agriculture Ministry, before Golani would reach Houston.

“To fly a cat or dog from Israel to any place in the world can vary from $500 to about $1500 or more depending on length of time the animal needs to spend in Israel, vaccinations, crating, security, Customs and transportation,” according to Kreiner.

As foreigners transporting rescued animals to their home abroad, the Riddles are not alone. It’s not unusual for visitors to rescue one or more of the hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats abandoned in Israel and ship them home for a new life.  Paula Nelson of West Virginia told The Media Line that over the past four years she has flown seven cats home, three of which have become pets for her two daughters. Nelson says, “People are crazy” and attributes the obsession with Israel’s strays as “Jerusalem fever.” Yet, she says that she and her husband, Carl, “have very tender hearts.” They spend about $3,500 annually just to feed the twelve cats, three dogs and a rabbit that live with them on their one-acre plot. But she discourages anyone from bringing back a pet they’re not willing to “take care of for life.”

According to Nelson, “you do it because you love the animal, not because it’s from Israel,” but Debbie Riddle disagrees. For her, that Golani was born in Israel was an important element in her decision to take him home, which is evident in her selection of a name for the dog. In fact, Golani’s breed is mostly Canaani, a breed indigenous to Israel and renowned for it’s prowess as a rescuer. Since part of the dog’s role with the Riddle family will relate to personal protection, Debbie wanted a “tough” name. She named her puppy in tribute to one of the Israel Defense Force’s elite infantry brigades, explaining that, “because he’s going to be a family pet, a member of the family, and also a protector, I felt like the name “Golani” fit him very well. He is very handsome and terribly lovable. He has the instinct to protect but is lovable.”

Deborah Taylor was on a Trinity Church trip to Israel when she found two kittens near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount – the spot holy to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Afraid one would be trampled, she scooped up the kitten and placed it in her pocket book. Her taxi driver led her to Dr. Kreiner to whom she paid $100 per kitten to insure placement off the streets. With two dogs and a cat back home, “my husband didn’t want me to bring more animals home.”

Chaya Beili, who manages the shelter at the, The Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (JSCPA) where currently 200 dogs and about 200 cats are currently boarded, attests to the overabundance of stray animals on the streets of the Israeli capital. She told The Media Line, “We advise leaving cats on the streets as long as they are spade. What’s the point of moving them to an environment they can’t handle? Dogs are a different story. Legally they can’t live on the streets in Israel, and practically it’s more difficult for them.” Chaya receives twenty calls monthly and can’t accommodate many of them.

“I just got a call from someone who found a puppy by the Qalandiya checkpoint [separating Jerusalem and the Palestinian city of Ramallah]. There’s no city responsible at the checkpoint. These puppies are usually strays belonging to Arab villages where spraying and neutering is banned and dog food is barely heard of. We have at least 100 of these Canaani dogs.”

Israel is not the exclusive birthplace of animals America-bound. “In both Afghanistan and Iraq, American soldiers bond with street dogs and go to all measures to bring these animals home”, according to Kelley O’Meara, director of companion animals and engagement at the Humane Society International. According to O’Meara, “Local groups are essential in expediting this complex process which in the case of Afghanistan can cost between three to four thousand dollars [per animal].”

Thirty-five days after their fortuitous meeting alongside the tour bus in front of the Olive Tree Hotel, Golani was brought to the cargo terminal at Ben Gurion International Airport where Dr. Kreiner cleared the final red tape and the dog, now grown to a robust six and a half pounds, was placed aboard a lighted, pressurized area of a United-Continental Boeing 777 jet for his flight to Houston with a Newark stopover for custom clearance. 
Meanwhile, back in Houston, inhabitants – human and otherwise – of the Riddle’s 16-acre horse farm anxiously awaited Golani’s arrival. At Houston’s George Bush International Airport, Golani was greeted by Debbie Riddle and some members of her tour group who had witnessed her fateful and dramatic meeting on a Jerusalem street. It didn’t matter whether Golani recognized Rep. Riddle because he remembered her or he became familiar with the scent of the Riddles’ socks left in the dog’s crate. An onlooker would be hard-pressed to deny a bond already existed between owner and pet.

“He ended up the birthday present I wished for,” an emotional Debbie Riddle told The Media Line by phone after arriving home with Golani.  “And Golani’s got duel citizenship: Israeli and Texan.”

This article originally appeared at The Media Line Ltd.

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. “

Rabbi talks about Gabrielle Giffords’ status, connection to faith [VIDEO]


A Frantic Hour


The dumbest question asked by any reporter anywhere in response to Hurricane Katrina came last Monday in Houston.

Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. Bush had just finished announcing a special relief effort — the Hurricane Katrina Fund — when someone in the press pool blurted out, “What do you think of reports that the levees were intentionally broken?”

The two men were already walking away at that point, but you could see the question register on Clinton’s perennially exhausted face. Uncertainty — did she really say that? — then anger — how dare she say that? — then sadness — what a sick, sick world where someone could even think that.

Then again, maybe I was just projecting my reaction. It was a hastily called press conference at a frantic hour, and they couldn’t keep everyone out. For a moment I was even embarrassed for the two ex-presidents, who, after offering themselves forth, get hit with such a crackpot response.

That night, I found that I was still thinking about that question.

It was, on the one hand, in keeping with a well-established American tradition of asinine conspiracy theories. Other examples: AIDS was a virus released by the CIA in the ghettos; the Mossad flew those planes into the Twin Towers; American nuclear testing caused the tsunami in Indonesia. Extremists of all stripes can’t stand to see complicated reality destroy their airtight ideologies. Fantasy fills in where facts seem to fall short.

But what made that question stick in my mind was something else: the idea of intentionality.

As much as we want the floodwaters to wash our hands of culpability in the unfolding tragedy, our hands are not clean.

No one intentionally broke the levees, but many people intentionally decided to limit funds for repairing and improving them. No one intentionally brought the waters down on the Gulf and New Orleans, but many people helped alter the natural environment to the area’s detriment. No one intentionally flooded those impoverished parishes, but many people decided to overlook their needs. No one intentionally let so many people suffer in the wake of this disaster, but many people — like me, like you — turned their backs on these poorest of the poor long before the floodwaters tragically worsened their lot.

Judaism, in its wisdom, makes such distinctions, as well. God is in control of the trembling Earth and its raging waters. But it is left to us humans to control how we treat the natural world and ourselves, how we prepare for and deal with both natural and man-made conditions. What our tradition is trying to beat into our heads is that there have to be two responses to the tragedy.

Most immediately, we must accept its inevitability and meet its demands with quickness and courage, with mercy and generosity. By all accounts, the Jews of Los Angeles, as individuals and as a community, have been doing this. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has received and distributed more than $500,000 in relief funds. Chabad has announced it will raise money during its upcoming telethon for relief efforts. Synagogues and other organizations have also raised significant funds. Even the Great American Hot Dog Company, a kosher establishment at The Grove, kicked in, shipping its entire weekend proceeds to hurricane relief. To do more, you can link directly to donor sites at www.jewishjournal.com.

But the second response has to go beyond that, to learn the deeper lessons. Clinton was getting at this more profound response when he said at the same Monday news conference that, “There are a lot of similarities between the people most affected by the tsunami and by the hurricane.”

The hurricane afflicted the most vulnerable in our society. They were invisible before the floods and given our track record, there is a good chance they will return to their role as disaster-victims-in-waiting once the cameras are turned off. It was not intentional, but yet we nonetheless left them to suffer the worst effects of the storm’s violence — just as they suffer the worst effects of social violence.

Now we need to ask whether we’ve done enough to help them outside of emergencies. It is a comforting cliché of Jewish life, to be repeated often from pulpits this weekend I’m sure, that God is not in the hurricane, but in our response to it. That is only partially true.

True, our first response should be, “How can I help?” For in helping we make manifest the goodness of our Creator. But our second response must go deeper. It must be: “How can I make sure it doesn’t happen again?”

Is it enough to airlift people out of harm’s way, but do nothing to lift them out of poverty?

How do we make investment in education, healthcare and housing as much of a national emergency as a natural disaster?

“The worse thing of all is when a Jew makes peace with the way things are,” the Slonimer rebbe wrote in Netivot Shalom. At every moment, he continued, our souls are summoned to do God’s work. “In every condition that a Jew is in there is an aspect of, ‘And God called out to him….'”

At this moment, it would be a mistake to assume all the suffering we’ve witnessed was the result of an inevitable, albeit historic, flood. No. As expert after expert has made clear, the greatest human costs came about because of ill planning and poverty — and those are not conditions we need accept.

That’s what makes the images and news of Katrina so tragic: not that the death and destruction were intentional, but that they were — to a large degree — avoidable.

 

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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