Houston: Thrice flooded in three years, A community known for its chesed needs our help

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29 Aug 2017

I will never forget the first time my husband wrote a drasha to present in shul. We had been living in Houston for about a month, where he was serving as the assistant rabbi, and the senior rabbi felt it was time. Nervous but excited, he sat typing away on his laptop in the living room, debating which ideas he wanted to discuss, agonizing over words.

In the other room, I sat by our desktop, watching with morbid fascination at the forecast of Hurricane Ike barreling towards the city where I now lived.

Sometime during that day, I gently suggested to him that maybe he take a break from working on the drasha to buy some plywood and water bottles because it looked like we were going to get hit that Shabbat.

The category 2 storm did indeed hit that Friday night and shul was canceled; he never did give that drasha.

Aside from some trees that fell over and some water damage in the shul, our community was lucky that time and we were spared. We did however, lose electricity. For two weeks. Houston heat and humidity has a category of its own and let’s just say that waiting for the power to come on gave me an inkling of the way we should feel about waiting for Mashiach.

But that experience shed light on who the Houston community truly is. Before the storm, we were impressed when countless people invited us to stay with them to ride out the storm on higher ground. But we were blown away when for two weeks after the storm, people who were blessed with power opened their homes to those who did not. People slept in friends’ houses- or in our case, homes of people we barely knew. The “haves” made dinners each night for the entire community of “have nots” so we would all have food to eat. The chesed we saw those two weeks was natural and came from generous hearts; it was also, what we would learn in the four years we spent in that community, emblematic of the Houston Jewish community.

Unfortunately, the Houston Jewish community has had to show this kind of chesed again and again as the community suffered catastrophic flooding twice in two years, the first on Memorial Day Weekend in 2015 and the second in April 2016. During the floods, community members rescued each other with rowboats from the high water- including a now famous picture of Rabbi Emeritus, Rabbi Joseph Radinsky a’h, being saved from his home. After the floods, those who did not suffer flood damage did laundry en-masse to help those who had. They cooked meals for their friends whose kitchens were not usable and invited friends to move in with them- in some cases, for months.

This past weekend, Hurricane Harvey hit Texas as a category 4 storm and flooded the community with waters higher than they had ever seen before. Houses that were built up and had never flooded before, found themselves with water. The Fondren community which had previously escaped flooding–at least inside their homes–found themselves dealing with floods and an alligator swimming down the flooded streets. And those in the Willow Meadows and Meyerland communities who had to throw out their valuables and rebuild twice in two years, found themselves looking at rebuilding a third time.

Michael Wadler, previous president of United Orthodox Synagogues was sleeping when his daughter, Maya saw water bubbling up from the doors and windows of their one-story home. She woke up her father and Michael stepped out of bed into a foot of water. He grabbed his Tefillin and left a rapidly flooding house, with neither, he nor Maya having a moment to grab their shoes and were rescued by a boat which took them to a fire station. Their house had previously flooded in May of 2015 and then again in April 2016. This time, their house sustained about four feet of flooding. “This flood was most devastating”, Michael said.

Mindy and Sam Pollak have lived in Houston for over 30 years. After the Memorial Day flood, their house took in 37 inches of water. During this storm, the home they own took in 6 feet of water; the rental home they have been occupying since the last storm—a home that has never flooded before, took in over a foot of water. As they were rescued by boat, they described a scene of cars covered with 5 feet of water and rumors of neighbors who had not survived the flood. Pictures taken of their street shows homes that are nearly submerged by water, with only a roof visible.


Pictured Above: The Home of Mindy and Sam Pollak; Mindy and Sam Pollak being rescued by boat

Rabbi Barry Gelman, rabbi of UOS and his wife, Gabi, also suffered irreparable damage to their home during the Memorial Day storm of 2015. After that storm, they rented an apartment nearby until they could decide on a course of action. They moved into their new house months before this storm hit. Their new home is currently flooded. Once again, they need to deal with their own damaged property, in addition to caring for a community, which is overwhelmed with loss.

The flood did not just destroy homes but also the heart of the Willow Meadows community, United Orthodox Synagogues. “It is a knife in our collective heart”, wrote Robert Levy, a longtime community member, as he shared pictures of the flooded synagogue.

Pictures of United Orthodox Synagogues, after the flood (Robert Levy photo credit)

The TORCH Outreach Center, whose new building opened recently, was also badly flooded. So was Congregation Torah Va’Chessed.

Yet, despite all they have lost, people shared messages of hope and gratefulness.  “I believe the only things we now own are the clothes we are wearing,” Michael said, “But we have our health.”

And once again, the community of chesed is reaching out to help each other.

Community members whose homes are not flooded have opened their homes to friends and their pets. Many continue to travel through the flood waters by boat, rescuing those in need of help. A UOS relief group, consisting of three women, Jenelle Garner, Amy Goldstein and Holly Davis was set up to coordinate efforts to help those in need; all three women in this group volunteering to help others, despite the fact that all of them sustained flood damages in their own homes. And students at the Robert M. Beren Academy, Houston’s modern Orthodox Jewish Day School have mobilized a group of volunteers, initially formed after the Memorial Day flood, and are once again ready to help families and the shul with the extensive clean up.

Michael’s oldest daughter, Ariel, who was at a neighbor when her house flooded, wrote the following on her Facebook account from a local shelter: ”I can’t express how grateful I am. Everything that I have lost can be replaced, it is just stuff. Through tragedy comes something wonderful. I cannot express how grateful I am to have such great family and friends. I live in an amazing community who despite experiencing challenges of their own, have been constantly checking up on us… Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Feeling proud to be a Jewish Houstonian”.

With so many affected by the storm, the Houston Jewish community needs our help. Here are three ways you can help:

  1. Donate: As the extent of the damage becomes clear, it is obvious that this community will need significant financial help in order to rebuild. Please donate to the OU and RCA’s disaster relief fund today
  2. Tehillim and Support: Recite Tehillim and Send Messages of Support. Our prayers and good wishes are needed more than ever. Click here to commit to reciting Tehillim or to send your message of support.
  3. Volunteer: Are you interested in volunteering in Houston to help the Orthodox community? We are in contact with community members on the ground to direct volunteers when and where they are needed. Click here to sign up to volunteer.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.