When hurricane Harvey devastated Southeastern Texas in late August, Rabbi Yehosua Wender was in his home waiting for the storm. Within an hour of the rain starting, the streets were flooded with two feet of water, says Wender, who serves a congregation at Young Israel of Houston. He was worried his home would flood. The hurricane made landfall in the United States as a category four, and broke the country’s all-time tropical cyclone rain record, according to The Weather Channel. “The truth is that as bad as [news outlets] predicted it,” Wender says, “it was much worse.”
Around 1,560 miles away, a synagogue in California, Young Israel of Beverly Hills, wanted to help. “We were shaken because it was on our doorstep in America,” explains Pini Dunner, the Orthodox rabbi serving the Beverly Hills congregation, who is coordinating his synagogue’s aid. “We are anticipating an earthquake in Southern California…we know the country would show the same support to us. You can’t hold back a hurricane.”
So far the synagogue has sent over $18,000 to Houston, and it is expecting to send about $4,000 more, according to Dunner. “A lot of people affected may not be covered by hurricane insurance, and federal funds are not readily available,” he says. “Some people just returned to their homes from a hurricane 15 months ago, and now they’re flooded out again. A person’s credit card can’t stretch that far; they need a cushion. They need some comfort to lead a normal life in the aftermath of a disaster.”
Donations came mostly from the Beverly Hills congregation, which serves 120 families. However, contributions have come from as far as Seattle and New York. “Every penny is given to [Wender], and he gives it out to people who need it,” explains Dunner. “We take care of the backup, and send him a singular big check every four weeks…With us the dollar goes to the cause as opposed to the salary of the people running the charity.”
Before the hurricane, the synagogues had no previous connection, despite sharing the same parent organization. The community in Beverly Hills wanted to help those affected in Houston, which prompted Dunner to reach out to Young Israel in Houston. The synagogue serves between 300 and 400 families. Most of them have been able to stay in their homes, and only a handful have water damage, though the damage caused a few to move out, Wender says.
“Around Friday noon [the media] began talking about how bad flooding would be, and it started raining in the late afternoon,” recounts Wender. “By 10 or 11 a.m. [Saturday], the worst was over, although we didn’t know that at the time.” After the storm passed, hundreds of volunteers began arriving to the area to help the people affected. “We became hub of housing volunteers, feeding volunteers,” says Wender. “While it was flooding, people were already preparing to help. The manpower was amazing, how many people came from around the country to help.”
Immediately following the hurricane, it was critical to remove carpet and sheetrock, as well as to discard any furniture damaged by the flood from the homes, says Christian Aranza, a pastor in Northern Houston and friend of Dunner’s. After taking his family to Louisiana and guaranteeing their safety, Aranza returned with two friends to help with relief efforts. “The best came out of other people, neighbors were helping each other,” says Aranza “It very much brought us in Houston together.” Along with his friends, Aranza worked to help families clear their homes. He also offered support as a pastor, and his friend, an insurance agent, helped people determine what documents they needed from their homes after the storm had hit.
As a result, many families have piles of their belongings sitting in their front yards and are trying to figure out what to do with the items. Others are still figuring out what they should do now that they have been displaced from their homes, Aranza says.
Luckily, the Houston synagogue suffered only minor water damage. Some walls were wet, and the carpet of the main schul needs to be replaced, according to Wender. So far, most of the money he has received has not been spent. “We are waiting to see how much people are out,” explains Wender. “They may have $20,000 in damage, but they don’t know how much insurance covers and how much they get from FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency].”
Now, the synagogue plans to focus on long-term relief. “We’re thankful for the assistance we’ve gotten from everyone, both with manpower and finances,” says Wender. After families have contacted their insurance agencies and FEMA, Wender says the money will be distributed to individual families to help cover out-of-pocket expenses.