Houston Jewish community picks up pieces after flooding

Houston Jewish community picks up pieces after flooding

Volunteers at the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC were busy over the weekend handing out supplies to help in the recovery. (Photo provided by Jewish Federation of Greater Houston)
Volunteers at the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC were busy over the weekend handing out supplies to help in the recovery. (Photo provided by Jewish Federation of Greater Houston)

Life for Houston’s Jewish community has yet to return to normal a week and a half after 11 inches of rain caused major flooding to parts of Texas’ largest city, but a number of service and charitable organizations have stepped forward since to help the cause.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh is among the groups that have united under the banner of Jewish Federations of North America “in supporting the flood relief and contributing to the Jewish community there,” said Adam Herztman, director, marketing communications for the Federation, adding that the umbrella group’s emergency committee allocated $25,000 in urgent aid shortly after flooding inundated whole neighborhoods last week.

The Federation is also directing those who wish to help the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston’s flood relief fund at houstonjewish.org/houstonflood.

“We really feel for Houston, in part because of the memory of the flooding that we saw here, just a few years ago … where communities along the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers were inundated,” said Hertzman. “As always, it will take some days to fully assess the damages and months to recover and rebuild, but we are certainly committed as a Federation to continue to support that community and to do everything that we can.”

Rhonda Love, vice president of programming at B’nai B’rith International, said on May 27 the organization opened its disaster relief funding page. She said it was too early to tell how much money had been raised.

Matthew Berger of Hillel International said most students in the Houston area are on summer break, but the Hillel at Texas A&M University has expressed interest in doing a winter or spring break service trip next year to help with flood repairs.

Over the weekend, volunteers and staff at the Houston Jewish Federation handed out recovery supplies at the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC, including boxes, bins, tape, packing materials, cleaning supplies, protective equipment, trash bags, bottled water and replacement cell-phone chargers. The volunteers also accepted donations of such items, according to the Jewish Herald-Voice.

Federation staff also went door to door in flood-struck areas delivering packaged meals.

Rodi Franco, the federation’s chief marketing officer, said Jewish Family Services is working to provide basic needs and set up crisis counseling. She said it is also collecting volunteers and trying to find an organization that will remove sheetrock from damaged homes. Franco emphasized last week that the extent of the damage is still relatively unknown.

“Some people are in a really bad place, but they have insurance; some people are in a really bad place, but they don’t have insurance,” she said. “It just depends. It’s so early. When you start out with no electricity and you’re sweeping water out of your house and you’re waiting for an insurance inspector to tell you, this is what you need to do to restore your home.”

Days of rain and thunderstorms, which has crippled parts of Texas and Oklahoma since May 26, have killed 28 people as of Monday. A Jewish couple who drowned last week in the floods that swept through Houston were buried on Sunday.

Shirley and Jack Alter, who died when their rescue boat capsized in the rushing floodwaters, were laid to rest at the Congregation Beth Yeshurun Cemetery in Houston. The boat suffered engine failure before capsizing on May 26, the Herald-Voice reported.

The couple — Shirley Alter was 85 and Jack Alter was 87 — were wearing life jackets but were not strong enough to withstand the strong current. The couple’s 55-year-old daughter was able to float to safety.

Shirley Alter’s body was recovered on the same day as the accident. Jack Alter’s body was recovered on May 28 in the Port of Houston and positively identified the next day.

Franco said the Jewish communities in the Meyerland, Bellaire and Willow Meadows neighborhoods were some of the hardest hit due to their proximity to the Brays Bayou, which overflowed its banks. She added that personnel are working to locate apartments that are willing to house displaced residents on a temporary basis.

“If you think you might be out of your house for a month or two, you don’t want to sign a one-year lease,” she explained.

She said she can relate to people who lost possessions in the storm, having suffered through $70,000 in damage during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

“Your car was flooded. It was sitting on the street. OK, there’s no more water; it all drained out. But you’re waiting for the assessor,” she recalled.

Lee Wunsch, the Houston federation’s president, said the city was virtually immobilized in the storm’s immediate aftermath, making communication very difficult.

“There was total paralysis,” he said on May 27. “Today was really the first day we’ve been able to figure everything out. Having gone through these disasters before, it usually takes two, three, four days before we know how many homes, institutions and families are affected.”

Three Houston synagogues were flooded and damaged during the storm: United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, Congregation Beth Israel’s Reform Temple and the Meyerland Minyan, an Orthodox synagogue.

United Orthodox Synagogues received the most extensive damage as a result of 5 feet of water that flooded the sanctuary. Congregation president Max Reichenthal said in a news release that 300 families were affected by the storm. Rabbi Barry Gelman said the repairs will cost in the millions.

“It will take months to repair our spiritual home,” he said.

Beth Israel received about 1 foot of water in its sanctuary, reaching as far back as the third row, said congregation president Pat Pollicoff.

“The sanctuary literally faces toward the bayou,” she said.

Pollicoff added that she didn’t think any of the temple’s Torahs were destroyed since they were sitting on a raised bimah.

“We had crews working overnight last night to pump all of the water out, which is nearly complete,” she said. “Carpets will have to be cleaned and dried and some replaced, but it will be in good enough shape that we will be able to prepare for a large Saturday night wedding that we have scheduled in there.”

Beth Israel is home to about 1,500 families, many of which Pollicoff said live close to the bayou and suffered damage as a result of the flooding.

“We’ve asked them to let us know if they need any assistance,” she said, “because we want to help in any way that they can.”

Masha Shollar and JTA contributed to this report.

Daniel Schere writes for the Baltimore Jewish Times. He can be reached at dschere@midatlanticmedia.com.