Houston floods inundate Jewish homes and two synagogues

Two synagogues and the homes of countless Jewish residents were damaged in the floods that swept through Houston on Monday and into Tuesday, inundating homes and businesses, sweeping away cars and leaving at least five people dead.

Houston, America’s fourth-largest city and home to more than 40,000 Jews, was paralyzed when many of the canals that run through the city (known locally as bayous) crested after torrential rains soaked the city. Some 8-12 inches of water fell in a matter of hours on ground already saturated by heavy rainfall during the last few weeks.

One of Houston’s major bayous runs alongside North and South Braeswood Boulevard, where two major synagogues are located and many of Houston’s Jews live. Numerous residents had to be evacuated by watercraft, including a rabbi emeritus from United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, one of the two synagogues that suffered damage. The other damaged synagogue was the Reform temple Congregation Beth Israel.

Houston’s JCC also said two of its properties were flooded, including the Merfish Teen Center, which will require new flooring, and racquetball courts and a preschool gym at the JCC’s Levit campus.

No fatalities or major injuries were reported among the city’s Jews.

“There’s water in every area of the shul – the main sanctuary, the social hall, the school wing, administrative offices. Luckily our Torahs were higher so they were not affected,” United Orthodox’s current rabbi, Barry Gelman, told JTA by phone. Gelman had to flee his home during the rains as floodwaters rose.

“Almost every house in this neighborhood sustained serious flood damages — from 6-8 inches to 3-4 feet of water in every house,” he said. “This will keep many people out of their homes for months.”

The outpouring of help from the community has been remarkable, Gelman said. As soon as the rain stopped, crews of volunteers from his 350-family synagogue community went house to house with canoes and rafts to rescue elderly residents and others stranded by the waters. After the waters receded, half a dozen Jewish high school boys showed up at Gelman’s house to help clean up and document the losses. A Conservative synagogue nearby offered United Orthodox prayer space (though United Orthodox said it plans to use its own social hall until repairs are completed), and another Orthodox synagogue in town offered to do the laundry of affected community members, complete with pickup and drop-off service.

“Amid all of this destruction, which is devastating, there is an incredible sense of unity and hope,” Gelman said. “The most important thing is no one got hurt.”

The CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, Lee Wunsch, said the community was still assessing the damage but that the Jewish Family Service of Houston would be the point of contact for community members requiring short-term housing or support until their homeowners insurance kicks in.

“This is definitely the worst since Tropical Storm Allison 14 years ago, but the protocol for dealing with it is pretty standard,” Wunsch told JTA. “It would be nice if it would stop raining, though. That just adds to the aggravation.”

This week marked the first time that Congregation Beth Israel, which was built in the 1960s and has 1,600 members, ever flooded, according to Pat Pollicoff, the synagogue’s president. More than a foot of water poured into the sanctuary, and air-conditioning and electrical systems in the sub-basement were flooded. The water came in the back door, which faces the bayou, she said.

The synagogue was able to get remediation crews in overnight Tuesday into Wednesday to pump out water and dry the carpets, which should limit the damage. Pollicoff said the synagogue was still working out the logistics of how to handle several major events scheduled for the coming days, including a graduation ceremony at the synagogue’s Jewish day school, a wedding, Shabbat services and another large event scheduled for Thursday night.

“The whole area surrounding the temple was so badly hit,” Pollicoff said. “Many members lost homes and cars. It’s a terrible thing for the entire community.”

For the sin of destroying God’s creation

Even with a few recent showers here in Southern California, we are in the midst of what is, according to some scientists, “the worst drought in 500 years.” The cumulative effect of the past three dry years has implications for our well-being and the well-being of our planet. The threat of fires and lasting damage to the natural environment is dire. Rural areas that rely on well water (some within an hour’s drive of Los Angeles) are at risk of dangerously low levels of drinking water.

In response to this ongoing crisis, I am undertaking three personal fasts based on the model outlined in the first chapter of Mishnah Ta’anit. Fasting is a traditional religious response to times of crisis and has been a resource in the rabbinic toolbox for generations. I am refraining from eating, drinking and washing (to conserve water) sunup to sundown Feb. 10, Feb. 13 and Feb. 17. Other religious and communal leaders have agreed to join me. 

For some, historically, fasting may have been an attempt to influence God and to evoke a response to our plight — a theurgic effort to bring the rains. My intention is different (although I’m open to the possibility of divine intervention). My goals are to, in the words of Maimonides, “awaken hearts and open pathways to repentance.” (Rambam, Laws of Fasts 5:1)

[Related: California needs water – and Israel]

The current drought is an issue that deserves the attention of our community and requires practical responses. The first step to making those changes is internalizing the depth of the crisis. 

For me, fasting is a way of standing in solidarity with a parched earth. When I am thirsty or weakened from a fast, I am reminded of my utter dependence on the bounty that God has provided me through this earth. The conditions of modern life have insulated us (especially those of us in urban settings) from the ways in which our well-being is intimately connected to the well-being of the environment. It’s easy to forget how dependent we are. 

Ritual can help evoke an emotional response and inspire change in action. Since I announced the fast, community members have already responded, sharing ideas of how to conserve water in our homes. They have told me that they feel moved by an act of personal piety to re-examine their own behaviors and many are joining me in fasting. My intention isn’t to impose a fast on others (I don’t believe I have that authority), but the communal response has added meaning to what started as an act of personal religious expression.

The Mishnah describes a ritual performed by Jews in times of severe drought. They would travel to the cemetery and offer special prayers there. The communal leaders would chastise the congregation into repentance, saying, “You will be like these dead if you do not turn from your ways.” In a less dramatic fashion, I hope that this fast will achieve a similar spiritual reaction — one that will connect our souls to the world and the world to our souls. 

As a rabbi, I am ultimately more concerned with personal responsibility than public policy. Through prayer and fasting, I hope to engage in an act of teshuvah — repentance. I do not believe that this drought is a punishment from God for our transgressions — at least not in a particularly causal way. Eating cheeseburgers doesn’t cause hurricanes. My theology is much more in line with the Talmudic adage, “olam k’minhago noheg — nature pursues its own course.” But I do believe that the current environmental crisis is one of human making. We are victims of our own abuse and misuse of God’s abundant gifts. 

My hope is that the time spent in fast and prayer will lead me to greater responsibility for and sensitivity to the challenges that face our natural world. And if this fast inspires the same in others, all the better. I pray for God’s mercy on us and on the earth. May God open our hearts and open pathways to repentance. 

Ari Lucas is assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Am and a recent transplant to Los Angeles.

Wild weather slams Israel

Rain and high winds have caused damage and power outages throughout Israel.

Storms raged across the country and temperatures dropped to below normal on Monday. Flooding closed the Herzliya train station and the main Azrielli shopping mall in Modiin, while traffic lights went out in cities. The power outages have been caused mostly due to falling tree branches.

Hospitals are preparing to deal with hypothermia from the expected lower temperatures.

The wild weather is expected to continue throughout the week.

Snow falling on Mount Hermon caused the closure of its ski slopes and visitors center. More snow is expected for Jerusalem and possibly the West Bank beginning Wednesday.

The water level in the Sea of Galilee rose 2.5 inches from Sunday morning to Monday morning.


The Mediterranean Sea on a stormy day at Nitzanim beach, Israel, on Jan. 7. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

Friendship Circle Walk not quite rained out

A little rain wasn’t going to scare The Friendship Circle — but a lot of rain was a different story. Despite “rain or shine” boasts on fliers for The Friendship Circle’s second annual Walk for Friendship, the walkathon for special needs children and their teenage buddies had to be quickly relocated indoors when it became apparent on Nov. 21 that this was a downpour that would have had even seasoned New Yorkers ducking into doorways.

“That’s what we’re all about. Special needs means you have to make accommodations. Things don’t turn out as you expected, so you make adjustments,” Rav-Noy said.

Through the Friendship Circle, 150 special needs children are matched with 325 teenage volunteers who visit them at home, help them out at Friendship Circle’s Hebrew School, take kung-fu classes with them, work at the winter and end-of-summer camps or attend holiday celebrations.

Last year’s inaugural walk brought out more than 1,000 kids and adults, who came to Rancho Park in Cheviot Hills on a sunny afternoon for a short walk and daylong festivities, including clowns, face painting, bounce houses and food. Last year, Friendship Circle raised $112,000 through the walk.

This year, Los Angeles Friendship Circle Director Rabbi Michy Rav-Noy was aiming higher, hoping to raise $150,000 and to bring out more participants with enticements like a rock climbing wall and bungee trampoline. While he met the fundraising goal, the walk was dampened — but not washed out — by the heavy rain.

About 15 minutes before registration was set to open at Rancho Park, Friendship Circle sent out an e-mail advising walkers to come instead to Friendship Circle headquarters on Pico Boulevard near Beverly Drive.

The rock climbing wall and bungee trampoline were canceled, but the Zimmer Museum’s art project, a face painting table, puppy petting zoo and musical guests, along with some homemade carnival games, all smushed into the small space. The barbecue was set up a parking lot in back, and food was sold inside.

Around 500 people visited in the course of the day.

New York takes unprecedented steps ahead of Irene

New York City on Friday ordered the evacuation of more than 250,000 people and prepared to shut down its entire mass transit system, both unprecedented measures ahead of the expected battering from Hurricane Irene.

The powerful and unusually large storm trudged up the U.S. East Coast on Friday, threatening 55 million people including more than 8 million in New York City, which was expecting heavy winds late on Saturday or early on Sunday.

Some members of the city’s observant Jewish population, normally prohibited by their religion from using electricity on Saturday, began leaving the city on Friday to avoid a religious dilemma should they need emergency services or information.

“Some of the rabbis are giving permission to leave the radio on the Sabbath. The rabbis are getting a lot of calls today,” said Dov Hikind, an orthodox Jewish state assemblyman from the borough of Brooklyn.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered people living in low-lying areas—including the Financial District surrounding Wall Street in Manhattan—out of their homes by 5 p.m. (2100 GMT) on Saturday, saying 91 emergency shelters would be open on Friday.

The transit system that carries 8.5 million people a day would start shutting down around noon (1600 GMT) on Saturday, a process that could take eight hours.

“We’ve never done a mandatory evacuation before and we wouldn’t be doing it now if we didn’t think this storm had the potential to be very serious,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a news conference.

New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo activated 900 National Guard troops while airlines moved aircraft from the danger zone and canceled at least 1,000 flights and the city’s four zoos stocked up to keep the animals fed.

Bridges leading to the island of Manhattan could be closed if winds exceed 60 mph (96 kph).

Police had a fleet of rescue boats at the ready in case resident of low-lying areas near the waterfront were trapped by the storm surge, which would be exacerbated by coincidental high tides.

The evacuations zones are mostly along the waterfront of the city—a complex geography of islands and peninsulas surrounded by rivers, harbors and open sea.

In the Rockaways area of Queens that faces the Atlantic Ocean, Destiny Crespo, 19, vowed to defy the evacuation order, saying, “No matter what, we’re going to board up these windows, we’re going to stay right here. … I am going to ride my way out of it like I’m a surfer.”

But her mother, Genevieve Crespo, 42, was more worried. “I am disabled. How am I going to get on the train with my grandkids? We have no idea where to go or what to do,” she said.

Benedict Willis, director of floor operations for investment banking boutique Sunrise Securities, said the NYSE had a responsibility to open Monday after the hurricane because millions of investors would rely on it for prices.

“But if the waters rise this high,” he said gesturing at the buzzing trading floor on Friday, “then it’s a bigger problem than I can handle. My name’s not Noah.”

The evacuations were mandatory, technically punishable by a $500 fine or 90 days in jail, but Bloomberg said, “We’re not trying to punish people. We’re trying to protect them.”

“Nobody’s going to get fined. Nobody’s going to jail. But if you don’t follow this, people might die,” Bloomberg said.

After the city experienced an unusually strong earthquake centered in Virginia on Tuesday, it prepared for a rare hurricane. Only five hurricanes in records dating to 1851 have tracked within 75 miles (120 km) of New York City, the most recent one being in 1985, according to weather.com.

“We are New Yorkers and we are tough. We like to think of ourselves as tough,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said. “But we’re also smart, and it’s smart to prepare. It’s smart to evacuate … and it’s smart to evacuate now.”

Homebound elderly and hospital patients in low-lying areas began to be evacuated earlier on Friday.

At Coney Island Hospital, ambulances were transporting 250 patients to other hospitals ahead of a shutdown set for 8 p.m. (0000 GMT on Saturday), said Evelyn Hernandez, a hospital spokeswoman.

The New York Stock Exchange was preparing a backup power generator and bringing in extra fuel and food to avoid disruptions when trade resumes on Monday. Around the corner, the New York Fed rolled out contingency plans in order to preserve the normal functioning of its open market operations on Monday, a spokesman said.

The Cyclone roller coaster—in the direct path of the storm on some projection models—was still running and scaring people on Friday, but would shut down on Sunday, when the heaviest rains were expected.

“I figured I wanted to come and ride it and I’m happy because it might not be here anymore,” said Jon Muller, 29, a tourist from Erie, Pennsylvania, celebrating his wedding anniversary with his wife.

New Yorkers hungry for information crashed the city’s website (http://www.nyc.gov/html/home_alt.html) looking for news on evacuations or service shutdowns.

At the Costco wholesale store in Brooklyn, the bottled water aisle was lined with shopping carts on Friday, some piled high with packets of plastic bottles.

“You never know if we’re going to need it. Might as well have some extra for the kids,” said Carmen Viera, 63, who had three cases of water in her shopping cart to take home to her house in Brooklyn with three children and two grandchildren.

Sporting events and show business were already falling victim to storm warnings.

The kick-off time for Saturday’s National Football League game between the New York Giants and New York Jets was brought forward several hours to avoid the worst of the foul weather, and the New York Mets baseball team postponed games on Saturday and Sunday.

But some bars and restaurants were preparing for a brisk business from New Yorkers who planned to ride out the storm with plenty of food an alcohol.

The manager at the Merchants River House restaurant, which is just behind the Hudson River boardwalk and has views of the Statue of Liberty, said the restaurant planned to stay open all weekend but would tie down deck furniture.

“We’re fully stocked up for the weekend,” said manager Christian Qualey, “so we can be a safe place for people.”

Additional reporting by Jonathan Spicer, Lynn Adler and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Sandra Maler