2018-02-28 / Voice at the Shore

Houston resilient, and grateful, in aftermath of Harvey

Executive Director Jewish Federation of Atlantic & Cape May Counties

Earlier this month, I took part in The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Professionals Institute in Houston, and prior to doing so found myself wondering why JFNA chose the largest city in Texas, and the fourth largest in the nation, to assemble three hundred Jewish communal professionals from across the country.

I was, I must admit, more than a little embarrassed to realize that I am as guilty as most of forgetting calamity when it is no longer in the news.

Clearly, JFNA chose Houston to remind us of the catastrophic human and physical damage wrought this past fall by Hurricane Harvey, and to illustrate for us firsthand just how powerful and quick the response of the national system of Jewish Federations, and our donors, can be when disaster strikes. Not so clear, or easily understood, is the lesson I, and I would imagine others, learned about how quickly we are apt to forget and shift our focus to other priorities.

Participants of JFNA’s Professional Institute tour a hurricane-damaged JCC in Houston. Participants of JFNA’s Professional Institute tour a hurricane-damaged JCC in Houston. Almost $30,000 was donated by our Jewish community to the Hurricane Harvey relief effort, and more than $20 million nationally, and, while these relief funds went a long way, they clearly did not go far enough to rebuild or to relieve the suffering of all who were impacted by the historic storm.

As we were transported from our hotel in downtown Houston, to the suburbs where most of the city’s Jewish community, and most of its Jewish organizations, resides, it became clear what havoc more than fifty-two inches (a national record) of rain can do.

It was evident in the many homes we passed without lights on, despite the evening hour, or boarded up, because their owners have not yet returned, or, worse, because their repair has not begun yet because there is so much repair work to be done and too few contractors to perform it.

Looking at them, it was difficult to grasp how the bayous (water canals) hundreds of feet across, dozens of feet deep, and thousands of feet from most homes, and now seemingly empty, filled so quickly, spilling over their banks and flooding everything in sight.

It was disturbing, once at the Jewish Community Center, to tour vast expanses of still unusable space where the water level rose ten feet to the ceiling, and to view security camera footage that recorded the water coming in and moving furniture and cabinets around the room like they were confetti in the air. Most disturbing of all was hearing the stories of families who lost all their possessions and every personal memento while stranded on the second floor, or the roofs, of their homes.

While it is estimated that as much as another $20 million may be needed just to finish the clean-up and repair work needed in Houston’s Jewish community, without taking into account the millions of dollars in revenue lost to Jewish organizations and businesses, it was truly inspiring to witness the resilience, determination, hope, and gratitude of the Jews in this Texas city. They are more grateful for each other, more united in the face of adversity, and more determined to work together because of Harvey.

In every story we were told, we heard how the people of Houston could not have done it without each other, how victims were also rescuers, how much they appreciate the expressions of support, the thousands of volunteers, and the millions of dollars sent from around the country, and how, if they did not know it before, they now realize the power of a collective system, a system of Jewish Federations across the country that represents the good will of donors in communities large and small, capable of responding powerfully and rapidly, a system like no other.

There is much work yet to be done in Houston, and the small part each of us in this Jewish community played in the relief effort did not go unnoticed – and will never be forgotten. The lesson in this for us is that, as donors to our local Jewish Federation, we are part of an incredible national network that has the power to make the impossible possible, for each of us, and all of us, wherever we live. s

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