In Houston, recovery could take years

Houston residents and rescuers make their way out of a flooded neighborhood after it was inundated with rain following Hurricane Harvey, Aug. 29.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Jewish community in Houston has seen “devastating” damage from Hurricane Harvey and could take years to recover, a federation official said.

“Recovery like this — it is a disaster larger than Katrina in terms of the amount of water that fell — we’re going to have short- and long-term recovery plans, but this is probably going to take us years to get back to where we were,” said Taryn Baranowski, the chief marketing officer for the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston.

Seventy-one percent of the city’s Jewish population of 63,700 lives in areas that have experienced high flooding, Baranowski said. That includes 12,000 Jewish seniors.

Three of the city’s five major synagogues have experienced significant flooding, Baranowski said. The federation is communicating with the rest of Houston’s synagogues — the area is home to 42 congregations and communities — but is focusing on helping people impacted by Harvey.

Community members have seen up to eight feet of water in their houses, Baranowski said.

“The majority of people have had to go to the second floor, and then be rescued from their second floor,” she said.

The Evelyn Rubinstein Jewish Community Center of Houston, the city’s only JCC, was flooded with 10 feet of water. The response began almost before the rain stopped falling.

Michael Dell, the Jewish founder and CEO of Dell Technologies, has pledged up to $36 million to rebuild Texas in the wake of the devastation caused by tropical storm Harvey.

Dell announced the donation on Sept. 1 to the Rebulid Texas Fund, established by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. He grew up in Houston in a neighborhood that was hard hit by the tropical storm.

Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry is advancing a plan to send $1 million in emergency aid to Houston’s flood-hit Jewish community.

In announcing the plan Monday, Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett called it an “unprecedented” opportunity for Israel to repay world Jewry, which has helped the Jewish state in times of need.

Israeli groups last week joined local Jewish institutions on the ground. The Israeli humanitarian group IsraAID rushed to Texas to provide supplies, remove debris and lead stress relief and recreational activities. United Hatzalah, a volunteer emergency service, sent its psychological first aid unit.

According to a recent report issued by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, American Jews give well over $2 billion to Israel every year, accounting for 9 percent of donations to the Jewish state. They contribute about another $12 billion through investments, exports and tourism, the report said. The U.S. government provides Israel $3 billion in annual military assistance.

Some in Houston found ways to build community in the wake of catastrophic flooding.

Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss’ home was so damaged by the flooding that he was unable to hold services there. So he arranged to have Shabbat services for his Shma Koleinu roving Jewish congregation at Congregation Brith Shalom in Bellaire, Texas, and he opened the bar mitzvah service and celebratory meal for 13-year-old Doran Evan Yustein to the entire Jewish community, the Associated Press reported.

“We wanted people to come and celebrate the bar mitzvah, but also offer prayers for the community, because there’s been so much sadness, and so many lives have been affected,” Doran’s mother, Gabrielle Moses, told AP.

Many came to the service because they were invited, and others came because they needed to feel connected after such a difficult week.

These women were among the college students who traveled to Houston to spend Labor Day weekend helping to clean up after Hurricane Harvey.
Photo by Elisheva Golani /

Student volunteers from college campuses arrived in Houston on Sunday to spend Labor Day weekend in sodden homes and drying streets, providing relief for victims of Harvey as part of an effort by the Chabad movement.

Rachel Margolin, 19, from the University of Texas spent the day shuttling food and supplies from Chabad at Rice University to area destinations, the movement wrote on the website. Margolin also participated in the demolition of a family’s home in the hard-hit and heavily Jewish Meyerland neighborhood.

Margolin said offering residents emotional support was as important as the physical work she did.
“The most moving part of my experience was a discussion I had with members of a family who opened up to me about their struggles relating to the hurricane, as well as stories about their lives.”

Speaking by phone, Rabbi Sholom Deitsch, director of Chabad Lubavitch of Northern Virginia, said he expects to do pastoral work when he leads a group of 50 Chabad rabbis to Houston this week. The group, which was scheduled to leave for Houston on Tuesday, includes Rabbi Sholom Raichik, director of Chabad of Upper Montgomery County.

“The situation is constantly changing,” Deitsch said before leaving. “We’re going to provide any help they need. But the most we can do may be to be clergy — to be there to listen.”

JTA News and Features and Managing Editor David Holzel contributed to this article.

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