The catastrophic floods that struck Houston last week wrought particularly intense damage in the city’s Jewish community in the southwestern neighborhood of Willow Meadows.
Within hours of the storm's end, Yeshiva University (YU) students started coordinating a relief mission to the area with local community leaders.
Supported by the Orthodox Union, Neal’s Fund, Harry Ballan, Virginia Bayer and Rabbi Robert Hirt, and in partnership with NECHAMA, a group of 20 students flew to Houston this week to take part in the process of putting the Jewish community back together.
Their work has involved bleaching floors and chairs contaminated by the toxic floodwaters, tearing down rotting walls and removing affected furniture from flooded houses, in addition to helping families salvage their belongings.
They have also met with local community leaders, including Rabbi Barry Gelman of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston – whose synagogue sustained over $1 million in damage – and Suzanne Jacobson of the Houston Federation to hear their stories and learn more about how they can help.
"They are engaged in a mission of saving lives in two ways – both literally, because if the wet Sheetrock and insulation and furniture isn’t taken out of the house quickly, it begins to grow mold, which is dangerous and a risk to people’s health, and emotionally, because this is an overwhelming, devastating event for people,” said Rabbi Gelman.
“It’s a tremendous amount of stress to pack up your belongings and get them into storage," he continued. "It’s very time consuming and emotionally difficult. The students are calming those emotions down, which is very important. I’m sure they’re going to come away from this experience very different, and that they’ll grow from it – they’re doing a great job.”
Aryeh Laufer, a Yeshiva College sophomore from Lawrence, New York, said giving emotional support was one of the key elements of the mission.
"We have a responsibility to others as a community when disaster happens in the world, especially the Jewish community,” he said. “Some people I’ve met here have been so inspirational, with a positive outlook that looks toward the future, which is amazing. I think a lot of what we do is smiling and being there on an emotional level.”
“You see the catastrophe in a whole new way when you’re standing in someone’s home that’s completely destroyed and you see their lives out there on the street,” said Devorah Pahmer, a junior at the Sy Syms School of Business from Passaic, New Jersey.
She recalled how one man showed her and fellow students a 70-year-old record with music his parents had recorded on it that had been completely destroyed, noting "you could see the sadness on his face and it was heartbreaking.”
Her assessment of the emotional damage was compounded by the physical situation as described by Shua Brick, a Yeshiva College junior from West Hempstead, New York.
“I think people don’t realize how devastating it is here,” Brick said. "It’s not just that things are waterlogged, it’s poisonous water – that means everyone’s clothing, antique furniture, carpets, anything that came in contact with it has to be thrown away. People are wearing masks and gloves. But it’s so simple to help out. We just need more hands on deck.”
"In general, when the University sent out this email asking for volunteers, I think it was pretty amazing that they had more than 150 people volunteering for 20 spaces in 48 hours,” said Pahmer. “That’s 150 people volunteering to fly down during their vacation time to pack up mattresses that were destroyed, tear down walls, bleach dishes – it really speaks to the uniqueness of YU.”
Rabbi Kenneth Brander, vice president of university and community life at YU, said the motivation of the students embodies the values of the institution.
"We teach that the study of Torah and being observant Jews requires one to act when called upon. Our students’ immediate response to engage in Houston flood relief demonstrates how special and inspiring they really are.”