November 15, 2018

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 opens Houston megachurch to Jews whose synagogue was flooded

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

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

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

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

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.”

Hurricane Harvey fundraising for Jewish Houston just getting started

The sanctuary of the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Screenshot from Vimeo

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

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

[Hurricane Harvey: How you can help]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This senior care facility was damaged by Hurricane Harvey – now they are starting to rebuild

Screenshot from Vimeo

Brayes Bayou cuts through the neighborhoods of Houston where its Jewish life is concentrated — and also where some of the worst flooding from Hurricane Harvey was felt.

Among the institutions that took on water was Seven Acres Jewish Senior Care Services, an elder care facility on the north bank of the bayou.

“Many of our residents have dementia and they were unable to comprehend what was going on,” Malcolm Slatko, the CEO of Seven Acres, said in a new video produced for the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston.

The video shows the extent of the damage to the facility, where flooring on the first level and all the drywall several feet up from the ground had to be removed.

During the floods, Seven Acres staff and their families and pets took shelter at the facility, according to Slatko. Afterwards, the facility worked to accommodate residents of other elder care facilities that fared worse than it did, even as construction crews worked seven days on repairs at Seven Acres.

The flood and its aftermath, “was a tear-jerking experience,” Slatko said in the video. “Now we’re full of optimism and hope that a new seven acres a rebuilt seven acres is on the way.”

Three synagogues near Brayes Bayou — the Reform Congregation Beth Israel, the Conservative Congregation Beth Yeshurun and the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston — also flooded during the historic storm.

Houston’s Jewish population stood at nearly 64,000 during a recent demographic survey, of which more than two-thirds lives in areas hardest hit by flooding, according to the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston.

More coverage on Hurricane Harvey:

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

Hurrican Harvey: How you can help

Jews fleeing Hurricane Irma are taking refuge in Atlanta’s synagogues

Volunteers in Atlanta's Orthodox Jewish community coordinate homes for evacuees from Hurricane Irma, which is set to hit Florida this weekend. Photo courtesy of Adam Starr

Rabbi Adam Starr was returning from an emergency trip to Houston, where he had helped a colleague clean up his synagogue after Harvey swept through that city, when his phone began to buzz. Jews from Florida had begun contacting Starr’s Atlanta synagogue seeking a safe haven from Hurricane Irma.

So on Tuesday, right after Starr got back from pulling out drywall and moving holy books in Texas, he began organizing his own relief effort back home. By Thursday night, he and a team of local volunteers were sitting around folding tables in Beth Jacob, a suburban Atlanta Orthodox synagogue, each working on laptops to coordinate shelter for Florida Jews.

“We were starting to get inquiries about Irma – two, three, four people asking about coming for Shabbat,” said Starr, rabbi of the Young Israel of Toco Hills, near Beth Jacob. “We realized this is going to be a real need, and instead of dealing with a one-off, let’s open our community.”

Irma, a Category 4 storm, has been called one of the worst hurricanes in decades. It ravaged the Caribbean this week and is expected to make landfall in Florida late Saturday.

The number of families seeking refuge in Atlanta’s Orthodox community is up to 250 — and growing. The community has turned into a landing spot for religious Jews from Florida seeking home hospitality, a local synagogue and meals for Shabbat funded by the Orthodox Union. Starr estimates that about 600 Orthodox families live in the area; many of them will be hosting impromptu guests on Friday night.

“What’s been going on for the past 36 hours is making shidduchim,” Starr said, using a Hebrew word for matches. “We’re the largest [nearby] Orthodox community that’s not directly in the path of the hurricane. We can do a tremendous kindness in assisting these people who want to get out of harm’s way.”

The Orthodox synagogues are two of nearly a dozen Atlanta Jewish institutions that have pitched in to help Irma evacuees from Florida, which has one of the country’s largest Jewish populations. Members of B’nai Torah, a Conservative synagogue, are hosting about 150 people, including some non-Jews. On Saturday morning, a few dozen members of the Conservative Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center, on Florida’s coast, will attend services and lunch at B’nai Torah.

A few other synagogues have opened their doors, as have three nearby Jewish camps that are hosting evacuees. The campus Chabad at Georgia Tech is welcoming students from out of state, and the local Jewish community center is offering free passes to evacuees. Jewish Family and Career Services has a hotline where evacuees experiencing trauma can talk to clinicians.

The rabbis aren’t sure how long they will have to host the Floridians, though Heller estimates they will be in Atlanta at least until Wednesday. And though Atlanta is inland, there is a chance that Irma could bring damage there, too. Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, are also in its path.

“All of Florida is trying to come to Atlanta at the moment, and Savannah and Charleston are close behind,” said B’nai Torah Rabbi Joshua Heller, who was up at 1:30 a.m. Friday inflating air mattresses in his basement for evacuees.

This isn’t the first time Atlanta’s Jews have mobilized to help out-of-state hurricane victims.

Melissa Miller, public relations manager for the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, recalls the community making a similar effort in 2005 to shelter Jewish victims of Hurricane Katrina as it swept through New Orleans. Some of those evacuees never left Atlanta.

“We had whole families in the middle of the night who came to Atlanta, left all their belongings,” Miller said. “There’s a tradition of loving kindness and Southern hospitality that all goes hand in hand. We’ve just always mobilized.”

May Harvey inspire our better angels

Volunteers huddle after helping clear furniture from the flooded house of a neighbor in Houston on Sept. 3. Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

Whenever there’s a tragedy, people unify.

That’s true of every group. It’s true of Americans during Hurricane Harvey. It’s true of Jews during every crisis in Jewish history. It’s only pressure from the outside that demonstrates cohesion within.

But what happens when the tragedy ends? What happens when the crisis abates?

If we’re not careful, we fragment again.

Take the Jewish community as an example. During the Gaza War, Jews around the world united in support of Israel; the deadly rocket assaults and brutal tunnel kidnappings from Hamas terrorists forced Jews to come to the realization that no matter their internal divisions, their mortal enemies wanted them collectively destroyed. Then the Gaza War ended, and Jews got back to the business of savaging themselves: leftists suggested that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration was too resistant to negotiations with the Palestinians, right-wingers suggested that the left was too conciliatory.

The same will be true in Houston. As the rains fall, driving thousands from their homes and destroying the savings of thousands more; as Texans band together to weather the elements and venture out on missions to save their fellow citizens; as Americans around the country watch, heartbroken, and reach for their checkbooks to try to help in any way they can, we feel united. That’s not new. We felt united after Sept. 11. We felt united during Hurricane Katrina. But that unity will inevitably break down: There will be complaints about government malfeasance, about partisan politics. In fact, it’s already begun: We’ve seen diatribes about first lady Melania Trump’s high heels, President Donald Trump’s crowd-size remarks, and supposed hypocrisy regarding federal disaster funding.

This is the point: Crises are sporadic. But we must take to heart the clarifying truths we see during crises: that we are united, that we are family.

In the Jewish community, this means recognizing that once a crisis ends, our enemies do not disappear. Hamas is intractable, as its members prove each and every day: Last week, they moved to restore ties to Iran and Syria. The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, named a youth camp in Jericho after Dalal Mughrabi, a female terrorist responsible for hijacking an Israeli bus and killing 38 civilians, including 13 children. Hard-leftists continue to call for divestment from Israel; alt-righters continue to target Jews as a cancer eating away at Western civilization. Jews must understand that the values we hold dear — individual rights and personal accountability, cherishing life above death, the perpetuation of Judaism and its adherents — will not endure further crises if we do not retain our unity.

Crises are sporadic. But we must take to heart the clarifying truths we see during crises: that we are united, that we are family.

In the broader American community, the same holds true. Houston showed us that artificial barriers of race don’t matter in the slightest — Blacks helped whites, whites helped Blacks. Color didn’t matter as first responders raced to save drowning people flooded from their homes. Neither did concerns about tax rates or Medicare funding. In the end, Americans were united because we saw that we held values of family and community in common, that we cared enough about each other and trusted each other enough to know that even in our darkest hour, we would reach out. We didn’t need a heavy hand forcing us to do so; all we required was the motivation of our own hearts.

None of this means there isn’t room for disagreements, hearty and loud. None of this means that we can’t engage in brutal politicking — the issues about which we disagree do matter. But if we see one another as enemies rather than brothers, then the true crisis will come: the crisis of division. Even as Americans braved storms to help one another in Houston, Americans beat the living hell out of other Americans in Berkeley — members of antifa attacked a crowd of peaceful demonstrators, declaring themselves anti-Nazi in the process. Antifa sees its opponents as enemies, not brothers. Some antifa fellow travelers — Mark Bray of Dartmouth comes to mind — feel the same way. That belief, in turn, will lead too many right-wing fellow travelers to make room for violent groups on their own side.

But Houston is America; Berkeley is what America looks like when external crisis becomes internal crisis. Abraham Lincoln wasn’t merely speaking to 1861 Americans when he pleaded with them to remember their “bonds of affection,” praying that “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

We see the better angels of our nature in Houston. May they inspire us to remember those bonds of affection, before everything falls apart.


BEN SHAPIRO is editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire, host of the most listened-to conservative podcast in the nation, “The Ben Shapiro Show,” and author of The New York Times best-seller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear Silences Americans.”

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

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

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

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.”

Israeli rescue group Zaka helping with hurricane cleanup in Houston

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

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.

News unfolds at a fever pitch

Volunteers search for evacuees through flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Harvey in Northwest Houston on Aug. 30. Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that a disaster or tragedy strikes so often just before the High Holy Days. The Munich massacre, 9/11, Katrina, now Harvey — is that the Universe’s way of driving home the words of the Unetanah Tokef prayer?   

On Rosh Hashanah it will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed —
how many will pass from the earth
and how many will be created;
who will live and who will die;
who will die at his predestined time and who before his time;
who by water and who by fire,
who by sword and who by beast,
who by famine and who by thirst,
who by war and who by plague,
who by strangling and who by stoning.
Who will rest and who will wander,
who will live in harmony and who will be harried,
who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer,
who will be impoverished and who will be enriched,
who will be degraded and who will be exalted.
But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severe Decree.

It could be that August and September were as tough on our ancestors as on us: months when the earth burns under unrelenting sun or floods in Noah-like storms. So they figured God was telling them it was time to think existential thoughts.

This year, I was laid low in August. I went home after work on Aug. 22 feeling a bit off, and woke up the next day as if I had just gone 10 rounds with McGregor and Mayweather. Not one or the other — both. Every year I get a flu shot, so it’s been years since I experienced a full viral knockout. This one caught me with my guard down and laid me out for a week.

I was still able to read, keep up with work via email, catch up on shows I’d been missing (“Red Oaks,” “Fleabag” — both engaging, almost flu-worthy), and, of course — of course — keep up on the news. Because I rarely left our spare bedroom for fear of being Patient Zero to the rest of the household, I subjected myself to an unhealthy amount of news.

On the night of Aug. 25, before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, Hurricane Trump pardoned former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The 85-year-old disgraced convict was one of those people I always suspected karma or the law would catch up with, and it was a good day when he was found guilty. Not for abusing and humiliating prisoners, targeting random Latinos for arrest, or trafficking in racist lies against a sitting president — Arpaio was convicted of contempt of court. Just like many gangsters, it was the stuff he never thought twice about that took him down.

The lesson of the High Holy Days is that redemption can come with repentance. But President Donald Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe not because he showed remorse or repentance, but precisely because he didn’t. By standing up to minorities, courts and critics of the left and right, Arpaio made himself a hero to Trump. If he had apologized, he’d be doing time.

Repentance, says the High Holy Day prayer, can save our souls. How sad we have a president who last week taught this lesson to our children: Repentance is for losers.

Then came the flood. CNN told the story of a couple who slept on their car roof for two nights in the pouring rain, inches above the floodwaters, until rescuers arrived. The rescuers were volunteers who had towed their boat from two hours away just to help out. President Trump’s response was helpful and efficient. The flood was unrelenting, but so was the relief.

Nothing can stop Americans from springing into action to help or donate to those in immediate need. But that same wondrous empathy goes dormant if the emergency is less than in our face. We’ll carry a cold baby over our heads to safety, but vote for the guy who wants to take health care away from that baby’s mom. We’ll dive into floodwaters for search and rescue, but refuse to fund the science showing the link between a 1-in-500-year flood and climate change. We’ll donate blankets and food to a teenager in a relief center, then support the guy who wants to deport him.

Charity, says the Unetanah Tokef, can avert the severe decree, but how do we get people to expand their idea of charity?

I’m not neglecting the other news — Jared Kushner took a field trip to the Middle East; the Israel Defense Forces demolished two Palestinian schools on the eve of the new school year, alleging they lacked permits; there was some boxing match. Then, just as my fever broke and the flu rented an Airbnb inside my lungs, North Korea shot a missile over Japan and North Korean President Kim Jong Un promised the next one would be in the direction of the U.S. territory of Guam. After that, your guess is as good as mine. What can be done?

Prayer, says the Unetanah Tokef, will “avert the severe decree.” Come the High Holy Days, I recommend it. And a flu shot.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

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

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

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.”

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

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

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.”

Not even Harvey could stop this family from publishing Houston’s Jewish paper

Michael Duke, associate editor of the Houston Jewish Herald-Voice, abandoned his SUV in the flooding but still managed to write his articles. Photo courtesy of Duke

As Hurricane Harvey bore down on Houston Friday, Vicki Samuels Levy dashed over to the offices of the Houston Jewish Herald-Voice, took the proofs of this week’s newspaper and went to her mother’s house.

Then mother and daughter spent all night editing the paper. And as the waters rose and they had to be evacuated to a neighbor’s house the next day, the proofs were in hand, ready for the printer.

“We want to help each other as family members, then we have to stop and do things for the paper,” said Samuels Levy, the paper’s CEO. “I couldn’t leave to go to my mother’s home before I checked all these pages.”

The mother, Jeanne Samuels, is also the owner and editor of the Jewish Herald-Voice. Samuels Levy’s husband, Lawrence Levy, runs its circulation, and her son, Michael Duke, is its associate editor and news reporter. Her nephew Matt Samuels writes sports and helps with production.

And this week, despite the storm waters deluging the city, the family is determined to keep the paper publishing. Founded in 1908, it has never skipped an issue.

“We’ve been through this before, and we had a contingency plan in place,” Duke said. “We haven’t missed a print issue for 109 years. We’re hoping this isn’t the first time.”

Although the work is mostly computer based, the flooding has made it an arduous task to put together the paper. Samuels Levy and her mother were forced to move, along with more than a dozen others, into a neighbor’s house Saturday when flood waters got too high. When Lawrence Levy discovered a computer glitch, he had to wait three days to get to the office and address it.

Duke abandoned his SUV after driving two strangers to a relative’s house; the vehicle died on the trip home. He and his wife had to wade a half-mile through waist-high waters to make it back, after which Duke began working again. He has managed to report everything remotely, posting on the paper’s website a series of articles on everything from families’ homes being flooded for the third time to a Mormon with an air boatrescuing 100 people in a Jewish neighborhood. By Wednesday morning, the website included more than 20 stories on the storm’s impact.

In the midst of it all, Duke saved his wife’s car from being crushed by a tree, moving it 10 feet just in time. Like friends of theirs, the couple plans to host less fortunate families in their (mostly) dry house as soon as the waters recede enough to allow travel.

“The hard part was on Sunday and Monday, when I was on the phone with people I know and love who were climbing onto kitchen counters and going on the roof waiting for rescue boats to come,” Duke said.

As of Wednesday morning, the family was putting the finishing touches on this week’s issue. The printer said it hopes to be back up and running on Thursday evening, and the newspaper was awaiting word from the service that labels and mails the copies on Friday mornings. The Jewish Herald-Voice will offer a free e-edition.

Duke has spent the week worrying about his family. But now that everyone is safe, he said, at least they can worry about the paper together.

“It’s been hard because for the first time, we’ve had family members directly impacted by the flood,” he said. “It draws your attention in different directions, but because we’re family and we’re all connected, we can lean on each other a little more.”

Jewish summer camps are reopening to host Houston victims

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

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.”

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

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

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.”

Houston Jewish community ravaged by Harvey’s torrential rains

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

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

Hurricane Harvey hits Jewish Houston hard. Here’s how you can help.

A rescue helicopter hovers in the background as an elderly woman and her poodle use an air mattress to float above flood waters from Tropical Storm Harvey while waiting to be rescued from Scarsdale Boulevard in Houston, Texas, on Aug. 27, 2017. Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

Even as Hurricane Harvey continued to soak Southeast Texas with unprecedented floods, the local Jewish community was already planning the relief effort that would kick in now that can be safely distributed.

The storm dumped more than six months’ worth of rain between Aug. 25 and Aug. 27, much of it in areas where Houston’s Jewish community is concentrated, according to Taryn Baranowski, chief marketing officer for the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. She said more than two-thirds of the area’s Jewish population lives in the neighborhoods hardest hit by the storm, including Meyerland, Willow Meadows and Memorial.

In response to flooding, the Jewish Federations of North America partnered with the Houston Federation to set up the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, raising money to support the Greater Houston Jewish community as it recovers from the devastation of the storm.

Click here to learn more and donate to the Jewish Federations’ efforts.

A recent demographic survey by the Federation indicated that 63,700 people live in Jewish households in the Greater Houston area. More than a quarter of that population are seniors, including 5,900 who are age 75 and over.

The Houston Federation is coordinating its response with other local Jewish organizations, including the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston and Seven Acres Jewish Senior Care Services, an assisted living home.

Separately, one of the congregations washed out by Hurricane Harvey, Congregation Beth Yeshurun, has opened relief funds to help cover losses to the massive synagogue complex and its attached day school.

Click here to donate to the synagogue, and here to donate to the day school.

The United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston also flooded, with damages potentially in the millions of dollars to its campus. Robert Levy, a member of the synagogue’s executive committee, said the storm was “just a disaster for the community.”

“While we have been through devastation before, this one is just an order of magnitude more extensive,” he told the Journal.

Click here to donate to the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston.

Meanwhile, on Aug. 28, the day after the storm ended, a team from the Israeli disaster relief organization IsraAID was already on its way to Houston. In a fundraising email, the group’s co-CEO, Yotam Polizer, said IsraAID would provide debris removal assistance, psychosocial support and childcare services to those impacted by the storm.

Click here to learn more and donate to IsraAID’s efforts

In the Houston area, several Chabad rabbis launched a joint fundraising effort to provide kosher meals to those who have evacuated and to help families recover after the floodwaters recede.

Rabbi Yossi Zaklikofsky of Bellaire, Tex., near Houston, acted as a spokesperson for that effort. He spoke on the phone from his home, where neighbors and community members had gathered to begin cleanup and repair after 6 inches of water flooded the ground floor.

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

Click here to learn more and support Chabad’s efforts.

Zaklikofsky said some members of the congregation he operates, the Shul of Bellaire, had seen three or four feet of water flooding their homes. He said that efforts to help Jews in extreme physical need were part of Chabad’s central mission.

“Before you can be there for somebody spiritually, you need to be there for them materially, physically emotionally, and help them restore stability and restore their dignity, first and foremost,” he said.

Other funds supporting Houston’s Jewish community and beyond:

Union for Reform Judaism

Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center in Houston

NECHAMA – Jewish Response to Disaster

Greater Houston Community Foundation

In the middle of our national breakdown, Harvey shows up

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

“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.

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

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

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.