Volunteers from Baltimore to Fairfax and everywhere in between rush to Houston's aid after Hurricane Harvey.
The Greater Washington and Baltimore Jewish communities responded in force to provide aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey this month. In addition to the massive donations of money, clothing, food, and other resources, an army of rabbis, philanthropists, and concerned citizens took the time and spent the resources to go to Houston, Texas, where they attended to the community’s physical and spiritual needs.
“I oversee the Jewish Federation of North America Emergency Committee, which does emergency preparedness and disaster response,” said William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington, D.C., office for the Jewish Federation of North America. “We’d been in contact with the Houston Jewish community for the week before the storm hit … after the storm hit and we recognized the severity of it, we deployed.”
About 70 percent of the Greater Houston Jewish community is centered in Meyerland, which was hit hard. Approximately 63,000 Jews live in the area, including 12,000 seniors.
“The Orthodox shul, one of the largest Conservative synagogues in the U.S., and a large Reform synagogue all suffered extensive damage, as did the Jewish nursing home, the JCC, and one of the Jewish day schools,” said Daroff.
The belongings of every household were spread out on front lawns. Plaster, sheet rock, furniture, mattresses — anything that wasn’t metal had to be segregated because the flood waters included sewage, carcinogens, and other harmful substances. Mold was also a concern.
Small, cherished family items — children’s drawings, family photos, souvenirs from faraway places, and countless books — lay piled in the yards. All of this material needed to be collected and burned by the city, since the contaminants rendered them unsuitable for landfills. Holy sefarim (Jewish books) were prepared for genizah (burial in the section of a Jewish cemetery designated for items with G-d’s name on them).
In order to serve the immediate needs of the community, an emergency distribution center was set up at the JCC. Food, clothing, fans, and other sundry goods were distributed as needed.
The Boston-area’s Rabbi Yossi Lipsker joined forces with a Boston-area philanthropist to form “Tzav haShaa” (Command of the Hour), a group consisting of 50 Chabad rabbis from across the U.S. who flew in to lend a hand both physically and spiritually. Several rabbis from the Greater Washington Jewish community joined them, including Rabbi Sholom Deitsch of Chabad of Northern Virginia.
Rabbi Deitsch described conditions on the ground in Houston as “unbelievable.” He and the other rabbis were shocked at the massive extent of the devastation.
“These are people just like us. They have their pride. They don’t want to ask for any handouts,” he said. “We went into one house and they said ‘We don’t need help, we’re okay’ … but then you help them maybe with one little thing, then another, and before you can turn around you have six guys working on the house for three hours.”
In addition to working within the Jewish community, Rabbi Deitsch and the other rabbis assisted the Red Cross in distributing necessities.
Frank Storch, director of The Chesed Fund Limited and Project Ezra of Greater Baltimore, Inc., helped coordinate a team of rescue first responders who purchased a boat and equipment and drove to Houston. The team comprised an EMT, Dovid Goldwasser, who is a native Baltimorean, and two retired Army Special Ops officers with many decades of experience in search and rescue. They risked their lives continuously for several days to rescue many stranded Hurricane Harvey survivors.
Additionally, Storch put Moises Zonana, owner of Kosherama, the only operational kosher grocery store in Houston, in touch with Zvi Bloom of Seasons and Howard Tzvi Friedman of the Orthodox Union. Together, they were able to arrange for one of the first truckloads of kosher food to the hurricane-ravaged city.
Fishel Gross, owner of O’Fishel Kosher Caterers in Baltimore flew to Houston after hearing about the community’s need for help with kosher food prep. Gross collaborated with a number of other vendors on the ground, including Chaim Mutterperl of South Side Sandwich Shop in Lakewood, New Jersey, to prepare and hand out about 1,000 meals every day to those in need of food. One former Baltimorean and current Texan, Chaim Goldfeder of Texas Kosher BBQ, is overseeing kosher volunteer caterers from across the U.S.
Robert M. Beren Academy, a Jewish day school in Houston, served as a base for providing necessary food and supplies to those in need. Gross said Tzivia Weiss, executive director of the Houston Kashruth Agency Association, effectively coordinated the efforts of the many volunteers who came from across the country.
Congregations Shomrei Emunah and Ohel Moshe in Baltimore sent a group of men to join the Orthodox Union (OU)’s Houston Relief Team in providing hands-on assistance in cleanup and recovery. They assisted with pulling up rotting floors, ripping out drywall, and generally helping to repair the homes that were damaged.
“I witnessed this week the incredible altruistic spirit that has emerged amid the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey,” said Rabbi Uri Topolosky of the Beth Joshua community in Aspen Hill, Maryland.
Along with Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Shalom – The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., and Rabbi Nissan Antine of Beth Sholom in Potomac, Maryland, Rabbi Topolosky saw first-hand the response of the Houston Jewish community to the needs of their brethren.
“Their efforts were inspiring, along with so many others we met throughout our trip, who stepped up to shine light into darkness,” said Rabbi Topolosky. “The Meyerland Minyan that turned their undamaged shul into a food pantry and medical supplies shack; or the homeowners who didn’t get flooded out who were staffing command centers to stock supplies and coordinate volunteers; or the school teachers helping to keep the children’s minds away from destruction — holy teachers who no doubt have their own troubles to manage.”
At the back of United Orthodox Synagogues in Houston, Rabbi Antine said, the was a “huge” pile of bibles, prayer books, and other holy books from both the synagogue and individual people’s home libraries — all waiting to be buried.
“Every shul had one,” he said.
In juxtaposition with these somber images, Rabbi Antine recalled the members of Jewish and non-Jewish communities who dedicate their lives to relief efforts like the one in Houston. Often, he said, they are men and women who themselves have experienced devastation and disaster, “people who maybe work for half a year or so just to earn enough money so that they can respond at need — acts of true chesed.”
By Dovid Nachshon Albright
Dovid Nachshon Albright is an active member of Chabad of Fairfax in Virginia. A volunteer Talmud teacher at his shul. Dovid is also the owner and founder of Albright IP, an intellectual property research and consulting firm.