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HOUSTON’S JEWISH COMMUNITY WEATHERS HURRICANE HARVEY

By: Ellen Geller Kamaras



Community members from Brooklyn and Deal fly down to help

In today’s high tech world, it’s terrifying and humbling to see the damage, destruction, and catastrophic flooding that a hurricane such as Harvey can cause. Houston, home to over 6 million people, is extremely vulnerable to flooding. Harvey pounded Houston with one of the worst flood disasters in U.S. history.

The devastation Hurricane Harvey created in Houston was rivaled by the outpouring of help and concern from many sectors. Donations of money, clothing, supplies, tools, and food deeply touched the hurricane victims in Houston. Help from volunteers from all over the country as well as Israel has been tremendous. Israel pledged $1 million in aid to Houston’s flood-devastated Jewish community. Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett said, “For years the Jewish communities stood by Israel when it needed their help; now it is our turn to stand by Houston's Jewish community.”

The Israel Rescue Coalition (IRC) sent a team of elite members of United Hatzalah’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit to Houston, to provide mental and emotional support to community members.

Community Members Fly Down To Help

Members of our own community in New York and New Jersey have made generous financial donations and have sent truckloads of food, clothing, and other crucial items. Most strikingly, numbers of our community members have flown to Houston, leaving behind their families, their jobs, and their businesses. They have rolled up their sleeves and committed to help do whatever was needed.

Our own Isaac Mavorah from Deal, NJ put his personal life on hold in order to help. Isaac is a husband, father, entrepreneur, and owner of Nessco Freight Auditing, a shipping business. He joined his friend David Kushner, an officer of Amudim, to rush to the aid of fellow Jews in Houston.

Amudim was founded by Rabbi Zvi Gluck to help any Jew in crisis, and to ensure that all who approach the organization are provided with the assistance and guidance they need, in the most professional, knowledgeable, and caring manner. Amudim worked with Achiezer, Seasons, Evergreen, and the OU to set up drop-off locations throughout the greater New York area, where people could bring much needed supplies. Amudim’s experience with disaster relief and logistics enabled them to organize the over 200 volunteers from the greater New York area, and coordinate the logistical support for the shipment of relief supplies from the Northeast to Houston.

A Call For Help

David Kushner posted the following request on Facebook, “We need volunteers to help in Houston.” As soon as Isaac saw the post he shared it, and started making phone calls. He got three others to join him, “And then we just went.”

Isaac Mavorah brought with him two of his most physically fit employees, Joe Vandervelde and Ralph Hanan, and a young man from Deal named Yehuda Zemel. They flew down to Houston on September 4th. Thankfully, Amudim stepped in and covered the cost of their airline tickets and hotel rooms.

In Houston, Isaac’s group joined five teenagers, Nathan Kashani, Shmuli Radin, Bryan Sherman, Michael Tahan, and Rafi Warszauer from Our Place in Brooklyn. Along with their counselor, Yoel Horowitz, and they became a team of ten. Our Place is a non-profit organization that employs a multi-faceted approach to guide Jewish teens-at-risk to return to mainstream society.

Isaac rented a pickup truck and the group of ten worked together for three days, taking orders from the Command Center, so to speak, which was set up at the parking lot of Robert M. Beren Academy, next door to UOS, United Orthodox Synagogue, in Houston.

Isaac said that Kushner is an extraordinary person, “who connects the people who have the resources to the ones that need them.” Rachel Kurland (Jewish Exponent, 9/5/17) wrote of Kushner’s role in the inspiring collaboration of Jewish organizations in sending a fleet of almost twenty 18-wheeler trailer trucks to Houston laden with supplies and food.

Isaac feels that volunteering in Houston was an amazing experience. He had always heard about how charitable the Jewish community is, with members who always want to help each other. However, seeing it in person, how so many people came together at a time of crisis, and viewing all the donations of food, clothing, supplies, and tools coming in totally astonished him. Isaac wishes that we could collaborate that well in good times too. There were hundreds of volunteers at Beren Academy from all over the country. Isaac was particularly impressed by the five teens from Our Place. He said, “None of them got paid…they worked hard and never complained. They came to Houston because they loved to help and their hearts were big.”

Setting The Wheels In Motion

The Command Center coordinators at Beren Academy, including Kushner, were incredibly organized. They assigned various tasks to the many volunteers: “Okay, you go to that house and do demolition,” or, “You guys go to the warehouse, they need help loading the trucks and sorting the supplies.” “This home needs furniture moved, so we only need two guys to go there.” A white board listed all the people whose homes had flooded and needed demolition work. All the necessary tools had been donated, and were right there.

Isaac says he is still mesmerized by everything he witnessed. He is also in awe of the chefs, cooks, and caterers who donated their time as well as the food they prepared for Houston community members and for the volunteers. Isaac saw the barbecue trucks arriving in the parking lot to cook the food, and the American Red Cross vehicles dropping off supplies and other items. Refrigerator trailers were also parked there to keep the food from spoiling.

The biggest project was attending to the flooded homes. Isaac explained that the walls and floors had to be ripped out to avoid black mold. The young volunteers’ help was essential in demolishing the walls, ripping up the floors, and moving the debris out of the houses. Wherever Isaac and his group went, they saw piles and piles of destroyed furniture, carpets, flooring, sheetrock, and anything that was destroyed in the flood, out on the front lawns.

Isaac described the first house his group went to, which was owned by an elderly couple. The wife was confined to a wheelchair. The couple was so appreciative that the volunteers came all the way from NY and NJ to help them. Isaac and his team begged the couple to go to a hotel, but they did not want to leave. But in the end, Isaac said, “I think we convinced them to finally go to the hotel.”

Staying Positive

A substantial Jewish community lives in Houston, of which a large portion got hit by the full brunt of the hurricane. In fact, Houston boasts one of the fastest growing shomer Shabbat communities outside of Lakewood.

On September 5th Rabbi Avi Weiss from Riverdale came to Houston to support Rabbi Barry Gelman from the United Orthodox Synagogue of Houston and provide hizuk to the Jewish community.

Rabbi Gelman had been Rabbi Weiss’ Associate Rabbi many years ago in NYC. Isaac described how moving it was when Rabbi Weiss played guitar at the Command Center and sang for them all.

Isaac and I talked about how Houstonians were staying positive and keeping a “glass half-full” attitude. One home owner was grateful that only her first floor had flooded. Another person whose entire house had flooded was appreciative that none of her family members had been hurt. Isaac said, “I have to tell you, Ellen, that was the collective attitude of every single person in Houston…they felt lucky…They weren’t saying, ‘Oh, woe is me. I lost everything.’ Even those that lost everything said, ‘Thank Gd our family is safe.’”

Moms On A Mitzvah Springs Into Action

Our own Linda Sadacka, founder of Moms On A Mitzvah (MOMS) also sprang into action during Hurricane Harvey. MOMS is a team of mothers who make hesed their mission by weaving it into their daily lives. Mrs. Sadacka got on the phone with legendary pilot, Elie Rowe, who is proficient in working in natural disaster situations. MOMS and Rowe had previously collaborated on various projects.

With each conversation with Mrs. Sadacka, Mr. Rowe became more and more concerned for those in the Meyerland and Willow Meadows communities who had not evacuated their homes.
Mr. Rowe decided to pilot his private plane to Dallas with desperately needed food, ordered by MOMS. Once he arrived in Houston, several boats were already waiting for him, anxious to distribute the sorely needed food. The MOMS team was in contact with the leaders of the of the Houston Jewish community, getting updates on the damage Harvey incurred. Our community, well-known for its generosity, started inundating Mrs. Sadacka with phone calls, wanting to donate to the relief efforts. In no time, a truck carrying over thirty thousand dollars worth of goods was in the hands of those in charge of distribution. Moreover, several askanim sponsored a whopping one thousand meals. After learning that the meals were being sent to the wrong distribution center, the MOMS team quickly organized rerouting the food to the correct destination. Shortly thereafter, and with great thanks, three of the hardest hit communities received their food shipments, in time for Shabbat.

My Family’s Personal Experience
During Hurricane Harvey

I would like to add a personal account of how Hurricane Harvey affected my own family. On Friday morning, August 25th, my family members and I received a group text message from our son in Houston saying, “Hurricane hitting Houston this Shabbat. Pray for us.” Busy in my own safe space in Brooklyn Heights, preparing for Shabbat, I was caught totally off guard. The Willow Meadows community had been hit exceptionally hard in two prior floods, one right after Shavuot on May 25, 2015 (dubbed “The Memorial Day Flood”) and the second on April 18, 2016 (called “The Tax Day Flood”).

How could this be happening in Houston three years in a row?

At the time of The Memorial Day flood in 2015, my son Jacob Kamaras and his wife Megan had a close call with a stalled elevator. It began to fill with water, and for a few minutes the door would not open. B”H, the door opened and they got back to their apartment safely. The next day, when power returned, Megan and Jacob found out how fortunate they were (they lost one car) compared to many of their friends and fellow congregants in the community whose homes were flooded. Also, their shul, United Orthodox Synagogue of Houston (UOS), sustained significant damage to almost every part of the building. The Memorial Day flood damaged about 500 Jewish homes and three synagogues. UOS suffered more than $1 million in damages.

Eleven months later Houston was deluged with 16 inches of rain in less than a day, and people who had rebuilt their homes, or were in the process, were flooded again. UOS was dealt another hard blow.

Harvey’s impact on UOS was worse than both prior storms.

During my visits to Houston in 2016, I met UOS members who had re-built their houses twice. Some home owners have not even returned to their homes, still waiting for permits to elevate their houses to prevent future flooding.

After receiving the text from our son Jacob, we were glued to the radio (except for Shabbat). We constantly checked weather forecasts and watched our cell phones to get updates from our children.

Jacob explained in that initial text message that they had considered evacuating but “were staying put for now.” They live on the third floor of the Meritage apartment building on North Braeswood Boulevard. The building is close to UOS, and is across from the Braes Bayou, which had overflowed during the previous two floods. We are grateful to Hashem that Megan and Jacob stayed “high and dry” for four days, losing power and running water for one day only. Fortunately, the waters started to recede, the rain stopped, and they were able to get out and help others who were less fortunate than they were.

Rabbi Barry Gelman of UOS made sure his congregants were fully prepared to deal with Hurricane Harvey emotionally, spiritually, halachically, and physically. He sent an email to his congregants before Shabbat that offered moral support and hizuk. He included a full hurricane preparedness list, important phone numbers, websites, and resources such as how to get weather information. Rabbi Gelman gave halachic instructions for what to do during a storm on Shabbat. He listed hotels in Texas approved by FEMA, FEMA approved temporary housing, and a Facebook community page for shout outs and questions. Reminders about filing an insurance claim for flood damage were also added later to the shul website, with pertinent links and email addresses.

Scientists and experts blame Houston’s explosive growth and unchecked and unzoned development in the metropolitan regions for the floodwater excess that strangles the city’s massive bayou network. Developers paved over land that used to absorb enormous volumes of rainwater.

Houstonians Need Our Help

Over 250 families in the Willow Meadows community have lost their homes, belongings, and cars. More than 50% of the UOS families have been affected by the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. People who are used to volunteering to assist others are now asking for help themselves. Hurricane Harvey affected all of the Orthodox shuls in Houston.

The good news is that Houstonians have grit. Their resilience, focus, positive energy, foresight, collaboration, and love and compassion for others is quite remarkable.

To donate to the Jewish Community of Houston please visit the website of the Hurricane Harvey Houston Jewish Community Rebuilding and Relief Fund (https://www.rmbauos.org/) or to the websites of The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston or the Orthodox Union (OU.org/giving/houston-relief-fund).

Ellen Geller Kamaras, CPA/MBA, is an International Coach Federation (ICF)
Associate Certified Coach. Her coaching specialties include life, career, and dating coaching.  Ellen can be contacted at ellen@lifecoachellen.com