When Rabbi Uri Topolosky visited Houston days after Hurricane Harvey, one particular young person’s act of chesed (kindness) inspired him. After the hurricane had caused a bat mitzvah at Houston’s United Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) to be postponed, the bat mitzvah girl, Gali, announced that she was donating all her bat mitzvah presents to recovery and rebuilding efforts.
Rabbi Uri was so moved by this young person’s act of chesed that he urged his congregation, Kehilat Pardes - The Rock Creek Synagogue in Rockville, Maryland, to follow it up with its own act of chesed. And that’s how a handful of Rockville residents ended up attending Gali’s rescheduled bat mitzvah — and rebuilding homes — in Houston over Martin Luther King Day weekend.
Kehilat Pardes is the new name for Beth Joshua Congregation, and with that new name comes a renewed congregational commitment to chesed — and not only for the local Jewish community. That’s why Rabbi Uri urged congregants to not just donate to Houston, but buy a plane ticket to Houston and form a connection with those affected. Although it was a short visit, we worked hard, learned a lot, and formed meaningful connections.
We worked on two homes in East Houston. They looked decent enough from the outside, but were completely gutted on the inside. In the first home, only the top of the walls remained — calendars were pinned to the kitchen wall and cleaning supplies were out from the last time there was a floor to scrub. It was an eerie reminder that this house took on water above all our heads just months ago. We poured tons of sand below the house and finished work on a French drain, with the hope that it will soak up and divert water the next time there is a flood. Everyone agreed there will be a next time.
The second home was in a neighborhood that housed over 60 families that had moved from New Orleans to escape Hurricane Katrina. Here they were again, flooded out of their homes. The particular homeowner was a single mom with three kids, who had struggled to save money and buy a house for her family. The flood forced her to move in with extended family, already hosting over two dozen relatives seeking cramped refuge. Without a car, she had to walk miles to get food and other necessities. When we met this homeowner, she broke down in tears and thanked G-d for our work. We were not the first Jewish volunteers that worked on her house, and it was clear that every Jewish group that goes down there is making a kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name).
As to the connections, Rabbi Barry Gelman of UOS shared his story with us over Shabbat. His family lost their home in a 2015 flood. They moved into another house on slightly higher ground and promised their children that it would not happen again. That promise was broken because of Harvey, though, damaging the new house, $11,000 worth of sefarim (holy books), and countless family mementos. With dozens of other Jewish families, they are living in a nearby apartment building, paying both rent and mortgage payments, wondering whether and how to rebuild. It is heartbreaking that they cannot trust their own environment to keep them safe.
As for UOS itself, the sanctuary is uninhabitable and its classrooms and offices lack walls and subfloor. The davening is in the social hall and Tot Shabbat is in a double-wide trailer. It made me think of all the times in Jewish history that we have invested in a physical space, and then — because of a pogrom, new edict, or natural disaster — that space got torn down. Yet, it’s in our nature to rebuild anew: UOS is beginning its campaign for a new sanctuary on an adjacent plot of land.
I was impacted by many things on the trip, but one particular comment will stay with me. Rabbi Gelman was telling us that his family was rescued from their flooding home by teenagers in a kayak. The rabbi’s 13-year-old son chimed in, saying next time he wants to go around in a kayak and rescue people.
Though the Houston recovery is nowhere near complete, it was a beautiful bat mitzvah and the UOS community is vibrant and full of love. As it is written in Shir HaShirim (8:7): “Mighty waters cannot extinguish love.”
By Jonathan Krisch
Jonathan Krisch is a board member of Kehilat Pardes – The Rock Creek Synagogue, which operates out of Berman Hebrew Academy in the Aspen Hill neighborhood of Rockville, Maryland, and was formerly known as Beth Joshua Congregation.