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

August 29, 2017
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.”

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