As the floodwaters unleashed by Hurricane Harvey began receding last week, waves of chessed burst forth from communities around the world to the affected Houston kehillos.
The Houston Jewish community is primarily comprised of two neighborhoods, Fondren and Meyerland. The Fondren neighborhood endured several days of storms in which people could not leave their homes, but the houses were generally unaffected by flooding. Parts of Meyerland and surrounding areas, however, experienced major flooding. For many in the community, it was the third serious flood they had experienced in three years — and, by far, the worst.
Some kehillah members had to be evacuated as the floodwaters rose to frightful levels. Hatzolah members from as far as Los Angeles and Miami had traveled to Houston to assist in rescue efforts.
B’chasdei Shamayim, no one from the kehillah was physically injured in the catastrophic storm, and no sifrei Torah were damaged. But as the floodwaters began receding Tuesday afternoon and people returned to their homes and took stock of the damage, a picture of horrifying devastation began to emerge.
Many homes in or around Meyerland had experienced several feet of flooding. The area in which the United Orthodox Synagogue (UOS), the largest shul in the area, is located, suffered some of the worst flooding in all of Houston. The shul itself suffered major damage to its sanctuary, and the homes of many of its members are currently unlivable.
A total of around 300 homes of kehillah members suffered some sort of flood damage.
Most of the homes in Meyerland are single-story (there are no basements, due to topographical issues); all those homes are currently uninhabitable. Residents of two-story homes, including many who live in the nearby neighborhood of Bellaire, have had to tear out and discard much of their first-story floors, walls and furniture.
Rabbi Yossi Zaklikofsky, Rav of the local Chabad shul known as “The Shul of Bellaire,” described to Hamodia his family’s experience during the hurricane, as well as the damage to his home, which is typical of that of many of his mispallelim.
“We were home throughout the hurricane,” said Rabbi Zaklikofsky. “As soon as the ground floor began taking in water, we took food, bottled water and supplies, and went upstairs for about 48 hours.”
“Our home never lost power, but many others weren’t fortunate in that way, and of course, it made the situation a lot more severe. They couldn’t charge their phones or run their air conditioners.”
The Zaklikofskys, like many other Bellaire and Meyerland families, have had to spend the past week discarding damaged property.
“The sheetrock on the first floor must be cut away, one foot above the level where the water reached, immediately, to get the moisture out of the house, as it can become toxic,” said Rabbi Zaklikofsky. “Friends and neighbors came to our home to assist us with this. Afterward, we got professionals to come and do a thorough job, such as removing all the water behind the cabinets.
“Our kitchen is gone, as is our wood floor and sheetrock on the first floor.”
Finding professionals is not easy: There are many homeowners in need, and waiting lists are long.
As one walks down the streets of the affected neighborhoods, said Rabbi Zaklikofsky, “it looks like a war zone.
“It’s heartbreaking and devastating to look at: You see a pile of sheetrock, wooden floors, bookcases, couches … and when people stand at their front door and look at this pile of garbage that used to be their possessions, they are in shock. It takes time to set in.”
Fondren residents, whose homes were generally undamaged, nevertheless underwent difficulties during and after the storm.
“It was a very scary three days,” Rabbi Yerachmiel Garfield, a Fondren resident and Head of School at Fondren’s Yeshivat Torat Emet, told Hamodia – though he is careful to emphasize that the discomfort experienced by Fondren residents was minimal compared to the difficulties of those in Meyerland.
“We were in middle of a hurricane; we could not leave our homes from Shabbos afternoon until Tuesday night. The streets were flooded, some homes lost power, there were gas shortages, stores were closed and couldn’t get food.”
But the Fondren residents, knowing they’d be needed to assist those in Meyerland, sprang into action almost immediately after the flooding ended.
By Tuesday night, the recovery chessed operation, led by Mrs. Avigail Helprin and Mrs. Tzivia Weiss, was up and running.
Volunteers were solicited and divided into three categories: those who would assist with housing — matching those whose homes were uninhabitable with those who could host; those who would assist with food — as even many of the families whose homes weren’t completely destroyed have no kitchen or cooking facilities; and those who would help with the physical labor of tearing out wet sheetrock and trashing destroyed furniture.
On Tuesday, Yeshivat Torat Emet provided livestreamed classes for its students, before meeting to discuss whether to open the school the next day. Whereas most of the rebbeim and moros live in Fondren, many of the secular-studies and other staff lived in Meyerland and were unable to come in. Nevertheless, the yeshivah made the decision to open.
“I felt that a big theme of this period is doing chessed in an effective, nice, mentchlich way, not in a self-centered way,” said Rabbi Garfield. “I thought opening school was a chessed to lots of people — to the kids stuck at home, who were bored and needed to get out; and for the parents, who want to help others but couldn’t if their children are home. So we decided to push ourselves as a team to open the school.”
The school consulted with Chai Lifeline professionals Wednesday regarding how to discuss the traumatic events with the students, and Chai Lifeline arranged a teleconference that night, explaining to parents how to talk to their kids.
While their children were in school, a number of Fondren women began dividing the volunteers into chessed groups and assisting the families in need.
Thanks to the generosity of the kehillah members in opening their doors to their brethren in need, temporary housing has been found for all.
A number of Chabad Houses across Houston joined together in a major chessed operation, with a similar set-up, focusing on the three basic needs: food, housing and physical labor. Chabad set up two massive kitchens — one in the main Houston Chabad House, under the leadership of Rabbi Shimon Lazaroff and his son Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff; and another at a Chabad kitchen at Texas Medical Center. Thousands of meals were cooked and delivered to families in need.
And help began arriving from Klal Yisrael … first from across Texas, then from across the United States, and from across the world.
A number of caterers came from Dallas to cook meals for the Houston community. Simcha Kosher Caterers and Taste of the World Caterers took care of Shabbos meals, and Texas Kosher Barbecue, led by master barbecue chef Chaim Goldfeder, began a major barbecue operation for the weekdays. On Sunday, their first day in Houston, Texas Kosher Barbecue prepared over 2,000 meals of shredded beef, grilled chicken, beans and coleslaw; on Monday, a similar number of chicken and hamburger meals were delivered. The meals are being prepared at Beren Academy, one of the epicenters of the relief operation.
Goldfeder plans on remaining in Houston and providing meals during weekdays for the next two weeks.
“People should never know what it’s like not to have food on their table and feel helpless about it,” he told Hamodia. “If we can help fix that, that’s worth everything.”
Funding for the food was provided by individuals and groups from all over the world, including Agudah, OU, and conservative media personality Glenn Beck’s Mercury One charity.
The floodwaters had barely subsided before organizations from across the U.S. began establishing collection funds and logistical operations to assist in the recovery effort, in addition to the funds and programs set up by the Houston community itself.
Agudath Israel of America was one of the first organizations to set up a collection fund.
Monday morning, while the floodwaters in Houston were still rising, Agudah reached out to the Rabbanim in Houston to assess the situation, said Executive Director Rabbi Labish Becker. “We found out that one of the main problems was providing food, as the supermarkets flooded and were unable to bring in new supplies. We immediately began a fundraising campaign,” providing funds for the Dallas community to send catering trucks “down to Houston every day to feed 1,000 people. We also worked on the governmental level to enable shelf-stable meals to be sent down.”
The Orthodox Union (OU) set up a collection fund, and the organization serves as a clearinghouse for volunteer efforts by all the groups, led by Adir Posy in OU’s Los Angeles office. Those wishing to volunteer time or supplies or expertise were instructed to email email@example.com, and their assistance was paired with those who needed it.
Chasdei Lev immediately mobilized a massive food operation, sending pallets of chicken and beef. From Israel, United Hatzalah sent a team of psychologists and social workers to counsel and help those affected. ZAKA sent a team to assist with the recovery. At the request of Rabbanim and askanim of the Houston Jewish community, representatives of Far Rockaway/Five Towns-based Achiezer, led by Rabbi Baruch Ber Bender — who has had much experience dealing with recovery from natural disasters — went to Houston to coordinate relief operations on the ground. Seasons and Evergreen supermarkets set up collection trucks at a number of their supermarkets in the New York and New Jersey area, in a volunteer effort coordinated by Mrs. Suri Bender.
Amudim, led by Rabbi Tzvi Gluck, worked with Achiezer, Seasons, Evergreen and the OU to set up drop-off locations, volunteers and logistical support for shipment of relief supplies from the Northeast to Houston. Amudim is known for assisting victims of abuse and addiction, but, “Since some of our staff are trained in logistical support and disaster response management, we were asked if we could assist with this project,” Rabbi Gluck told Hamodia.
Amudim arranged for volunteers from the New York and New Jersey area to go to Houston, and sent staff to meet the truck carrying the supplies and to assist in unloading for distribution in Houston.
The items donated are as varied as they are desperately needed: everything from linen, batteries, mosquito sprays and air mattresses, to baby clothing, diapers, wipes, baby food, and over 2,000 rolls of paper towels.
The families are having their specific needs cared for on a micro level, as well.
“Doing chessed properly is an avodah that I didn’t appreciate fully until now,” said Rabbi Garfield. “You really have to find something that is meaningful — things that the needy person needs and appreciates.”
The supplies came from just about everywhere, as did the volunteers. They came by plane, by car, by van, rolling up their sleeves and digging through the muck and mold to assist their brothers in need. From Dallas, from Baltimore, from Lakewood, from New York. From Chabad Houses and colleges across the country. From Kansas and Colorado. From Skokie Yeshiva, Yeshiva University, and Rice University. Chaveirim members, Hatzolah members, individuals, groups and organizations too numerous to delineate, k’ish echad b’lev echad: to alleviate the burden of their fellow Jews.
“I am humbled to be a part of the effort here,” said Rabbi Bender. “The fact that we have a Jewish community working together in one place is a beautiful thing, and the outpouring of support for the Houston community has blown them away.”
Fifty Chabad Rabbis from across the country scheduled a visit to Houston to provide chizuk and counseling to those in need.
Through it all, Klal Yisrael maintains its awareness that there is only One to Whom we can turn to heal all wounds.
At OU’s Houston relief website, in addition to donating money and signing up to volunteer or donate items, people can sign up to recite Tehillim in zechus of the Houston community. As of Monday evening, well over 10,000 perakim had been recited.
At Beth Medrash Govoha’s Kollel of Houston, sedarim continued even as the yungeleit were working overtime to assist friends and neighbors in need. The kollel families are hosting displaced families, and the kollel wives are volunteering at food distribution trucks, which came from places like Miami, New York, and La Jolla, California.
The Houston community has gained tremendous chizuk from the help provided by acheinu bnei Yisrael.
“The response that the community has seen from all over the country and all over the world — all types of Yidden responding and coming together to help their fellow Jews in need — has been unbelievably inspiring,” Rabbi Moshe Friedman, director of the Kollel of Houston, told Hamodia.
The assistance has truly been an international effort, coming from Jews of different countries and diverse income levels. The Meyerland Minyan, a kiruv shul under the leadership of Rabbi Gidon Moskovitz, set up a donation fund, and contributions have come from Long Island and Miami, Mexico, Israel and Belarus. Donations in all amounts: $10, $36, $1,000 — kol ish asher yidvenu libo.
“We are overwhelmed by all the chessed; we can’t even keep track of where things are coming from,” Rabbi Moskovitz told Hamodia. “A man came in from New York; he had sent out a message to his friends and raised money to bring in cleaning supplies. Rabbi Avrohom Scheinberg from San Antonio drove in last Tuesday, the first day the roads were drivable, with cleaning supplies, masks and gloves. More and more kept coming in. There are pallets of bedding. My shul’s kiddush room is now a pantry, stocked wall-to-wall with food.”
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To those asking, “What can I do to help?” or “What can I donate?” relief organizations are emphasizing that financial donations or gift cards are most urgently needed, so that people can purchase the items they require for themselves.
The need for funds is particularly important as the Yamim Tovim approach.
“The Rabbanim in Houston are, of course, greatly concerned about the local community’s needs for the upcoming Yamim Tovim,” Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin, Agudath Israel’s Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration, told Hamodia. “Numerous families have lost their homes, their possessions, and are looking to us to help them in the coming weeks. That is a major focus of our efforts at this time, and we are prepared to help ensure that the Houston community will be able to observe the Yamim Nora’im and Sukkos with as much menuchas hanefesh as possible, given the very difficult circumstances in which they find themselves.”
The funds will also be used for the many other costs involved that may not be covered by insurance.
Once the initial work of carting away the damaged walls, floors and furniture is complete, those with technical expertise in construction, plumbing and electricity will be needed to help people rebuild their homes.
Anyone wishing to volunteer or assist in any way should please email firstname.lastname@example.org. This email address, which is monitored continually, serves as the clearinghouse for all relief operations.
Here are some of the ways people can donate money:
Agudath Israel: Online at agudathisrael.org — with “Disaster Relief Fund” typed into the Comments box; or donations can be mailed to Agudath Israel, 42 Broadway, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10004. Checks should be made out to Agudath Israel, but marked “Disaster Relief Fund.”
Chabad: Online at chabadhouston.com/hurricane or checks can be mailed to: Chabad Harvey Relief, 10900 Fondren Road, Houston, TX 77096.
OU: Donations can be made online at https://www.ou.org/houston-crisis/
Meyerland Minyan: Online at meyerlandminyan.org or checks can be mailed to: Meyerland Minyan, 9002 Chimney Rock Rd. Suite G186, Houston, TX 77096. Please make check out to “Meyerland Minyan” and put “Flood Relief” in the memo.
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Last Shabbos, Rabbi Moskovitz stood before his kehillah, so many of whom had lost so much during the past few days. He spoke about that week’s Haftarah, which discusses the mei Noach, the waters of the Great Flood.
“In the past, lots of people may have had difficulty picturing the waters of Noach,” said Rabbi Moskovitz. “Now, we have an inkling of what that can be.
“But we then have to look at next week’s Haftarah: ‘V’amech kulam tzaddikim’ — Jews from everywhere, selflessly helping their brethren in need; ‘Masai yadai lehispaer ’ — Hakadosh Baruch Hu is deriving nachas from what Klal Yisrael is doing, across the country and around the world. How praiseworthy is His handiwork!”