On the Ground in Houston: Waters Have Receded, but Challenges Remain

By Dara Kaufman, Executive Director / Jewish Federation of the Berkshires

Imagine yourself in the second floor of your house with two six-month old twins, trying to decide which baby you will strap to yourself and which one you will hand over to someone else in order to evacuate your home in chest-high waters that are rapidly rising.

This was the unimaginable decision that Anita Bormaster had to make as she and her family found themselves trapped during the August 27 flooding in Houston, TX.

I was recently in Houston with 350 Federation professionals for the 2018 Professional Institute, which included a track specifically for executive directors of small Federations from across the country.

Hurricane Harvey decimated Houston. Hundreds of thousands of people were impacted and the Jewish community was also hit hard.  In a matter of hours, the fabric that holds this thriving Jewish community together became waterlogged and shredded to pieces. More than 2,000 families living within a two-mile radius of one another lost everything. Synagogues, day schools, and other Jewish institutions in the area were destroyed.  As the flood waters quickly rose, people grabbed what they could and evacuated. Once the water receded, many returned to find there was nothing left to salvage.

I had the opportunity to visit the local JCC to see how they are rebuilding. The first floor was reduced to rubble when 10 feet of water rushed through, knocking out glass window and doors and eventually punching a gaping hole through a cinderblock wall. Walking us through the site, Teri Greenblatt, the assistant executive director, pointed out the outline of what used to be the room where hundreds of meals were prepared each day for their kosher meals on wheels program. .

When I think about Federation dollars saving lives, I usually picture crises that are far away – rockets in Southern Israel, an earthquake in Nepal, war in Ukraine. However, the people in Houston are very much like us. They had good jobs, beautiful homes, and a strong, vibrant community. In a matter of hours, all was stripped away; yet they still had their spirit and the support they could provide one another. And they had Federation.

The Berkshires very generously sent more than $18,000 to Houston when the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) first mobilized its hurricane relief effort. Together with other communities, we provided $20 million of emergency funding to help meet the most critical needs in those early weeks.  Those dollars were a vital resource for Miri, a young Israeli woman I met, who was working at a kiosk in the mall adjacent to my hotel.

Upon learning of my Federation connection, Miri emotionally clasped my hands in hers and shared her story. The rental home where she lived with her husband and 5-year-old son had flooded. They had no renters insurance, and so had no hope of replacing anything. With Federation support, they received an emergency cash grant and were able to speak with a social worker who helped them find additional support. Rental prices were being jacked up as demand began to exceed supply, and they received access to an advocate who helped negotiate temporary housing at a fair rate. 

In a presentation by Avital Ingber, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Great Houston, I sadly learned that at least another $20 million is still needed. The spotlight on Houston may have diminished as the waters have receded, but many challenges and needs remain in rebuilding this Jewish community.

As I listened to Avital, I was thankful for the generosity of our small Berkshire community. Just a few weeks earlier our board of directors had authorized two additional funding allocations out of our 2017 budget – $5,000 to support Houston’s rebuilding efforts and $5,000 to support the rebuilding efforts of Puerto Rico. In my pocket book was a check, which I later presented to Avital, to be used for educational supplies for one of their local schools.

Visiting Houston, and hearing the experiences of people who had been through so much, really hit home, and reinforced one of the key reasons why I believe that Federation, as an organization and as a collective system, needs to exist.  When our community needs us, we are there to help. This is not just a tag line in our campaign – it is the fundamental underpinning of our Jewish values. Whether through tzedakah (righteous giving), tikkun olam (social action), or gemilut chasidim (acts of loving kindness), as Jews and as humans we must be there for one another.

I tried to explain this to Jorge, the team leader at the Food Bank of Greater Houston, where my colleagues and I volunteered one morning. We were taking a short break from packing food bags that would be sent home in backpacks for kids who needed extra food security over the weekend, and I shared how our Jewish Women’s Foundation funded a similar project in the Berkshires. Jorge asked me why, with such a limited amount of time in Houston, we were taking the morning to volunteer “Your community needs us,” I said. “If we are here in Houston, we must help.”

I pray that the Berkshires will never experience floods, or earthquakes or fires or any other horrific event that devastates lives and rips apart the fabric of our community. But it is reassuring to know that if, heaven forbid, something should, the Jewish community across the country would, in a heartbeat, be there for us in our time of need.

Reflecting on my time in Houston, I can’t help but feel a deep and abiding gratitude for the privilege it is to represent our generous and caring community in the holy work that we do together through Federation. On behalf of the many grateful people I met in Houston, thank you for being there in their time of need!

Support for Houston is still greatly needed. Donate online at houstonjewish.org or send a payment to us and we will be happy to forward it on your behalf.