Harvey’s Horrors Offer Opportunity

Harvey’s Horrors Offer Opportunity

The natural disaster brings out the best in humanity to help those in need.

Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis

Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Toco Hills.

An infrared satellite image of Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 25, via the U.S. Navy.
An infrared satellite image of Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 25, via the U.S. Navy.

Houston, we have a problem. A flood of biblical proportion has consumed Houston and its surrounding communities. It has been so painful to watch the media reports. The floods from Hurricane Harvey have damaged about 80 percent of Houston. The storm has left death. It has left destruction as 52 inches of rain flooded the city. Entire highways — some two-tiered — were underwater, and 7 million inhabitants were flooded. That’s more than the population of 38 states.

So many have experienced such trauma as they saw their lives go down the drain. Imagine having to flee into your stuffy, dark and hot attic with no electricity and having to remain there for days, hearing the constant pounding of rain on the roof. People were told to bring shovels and axes so that they could break through the roof if the attic became flooded and there was no other way out.

The Houston Jewish community is a very special, caring community. Rabbi Ari Abramowitz from the Land of Israel Network lives in Israel but is from Houston. He called some of his friends there to find out firsthand what was going on.

He tells the story of Wayne and Laura Yaffe. The Yaffes had the foresight and the ability to raise their home after the last flood to a height that was just a bit higher than the floodwaters. You must understand what’s involved with raising a home. It’s a massive undertaking that’s tremendously expensive. There’s a whole industry of construction crews that specialize in this. Only a small number of families in the community could do this. But they all, like the Yaffes, took in whoever came swimming or by boat for shelter — Jew and non-Jew alike.

Rabbi Abramowitz on Aug. 29 interviewed one of those who took shelter, Michele Levy: “We swam over and got the blow-up boat and began rescuing neighbors on our street. … This was the only way to get to people. The National Guard was doing airlift rescues for all the shut-ins and the people who needed medical attention. The water today began to recede somewhat, and we could actually see grass on the higher areas of our yard, but all of our homes at the height were in 4 to 6 feet of water with 10 feet in the street. … My entire house and everything in it that I had just finished replacing from the last flood is destroyed. But we are alive, and we’re safe, and that’s what’s most important. And we’re coming together as a community to support each other.”

This is what Mindy Pollack said: “Our home was flooded three times before this in 20 months. We had contracted to elevate our home. They were going to do it last Thursday, but because of the inclement weather, they were putting it off till this week. I had moved back everything into my home that we took out from the previous floods this week. We went to shul on Shabbos, and the sun was out, and we were all wondering why the city was closing down.

“Just after Shabbos the floodwaters began to pour in. We looked outside, and Rabbi Gelman’s car was soon flooded above the lights. … Our neighbor, Mr. Gross, came by on his canoe and took us in. He warned us not to shift our weight or we would turn over. He tried so hard to canoe us down to the Hoffmans’ house, but the currents were so strong, we couldn’t get there. Instead the currents took us to the Yaffe family’s front door because the floodwaters had already reached there.

The streets literally looked like a river. … As we were canoeing down there, we saw people on rooftops begging to be saved. There wasn’t enough room for the three of us in the canoe, so Mr. Gross went back and forth saving total strangers. It was really bad. Homes were flooded that were never flooded before in any of the floods. … Thank G-d our homes and contents are only things, and maybe Hashem was trying to tells us that we don’t need all this stuff and we have to downsize. And we are now downsized, literally down to the clothes on our backs.”

Rabbi Abramowitz tells that his former shul in Houston was submerged in 8 feet of water. The community was hit so hard because it borders the bayou. The streets have turned to rivers, and these rivers are filled with sewage, alligators and snakes. There were pictures of alligators swimming through the streets on Facebook.

Three of the city’s five major synagogues have experienced significant flooding, and 71 percent of the city’s Jewish population of 65,000 lives in areas that have experienced high flooding, including 12,000 Jewish seniors. The Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston was flooded with 10 feet of water.

How does the Torah teach us to respond to such a disaster? Considering that this happened in the early days of Elul, the month of compassion preparing us for Rosh Hashanah, what compassion do we find in such catastrophe? Should we say, as some religious fundamentalists argue, that natural disasters are a punishment for our sins?

G-d forbid! Who appointed us as judges to make such judgments? We have enough of our issues to deal with before passing judgment on others. We are not G-d!

It’s interesting that these natural disasters are called “acts of G-d” by insurance companies. Apparently, when it comes to saving money, G-d is suddenly invoked and turned into a scapegoat.

On the other hand, as Maimonides (“Mishnah Torah,” Laws of Fasting 1:2-3) teaches, we must learn lessons from every event, especially calamities. What lessons can we learn from Hurricane Harvey?

The most obvious lesson is that this disaster brought out the best in us. Just witness how the torrential floods elicited an equally powerful torrent of goodness and compassion: People of all types, regardless of color or beliefs, mobilized to help — neighbors, strangers, anyone.

Witness the rescue efforts of so many risking their lives to save others. Witness the supplies and funds pouring in from around the country. In stark contrast to the polarizing politics of Charlottesville that consumed our nation just a few days ago, we suddenly were united. When our human vulnerability and fragility were exposed by the raw elements of nature, when we looked up to heaven for the sun to reappear after days of relentless rains, when we were stripped of our comfort zones and the illusion of superficial material success, we showed, for all to see, the beautiful and compassionate people we all are at our core.

A dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg in New Jersey, heard that Houston’s Jewish religious community was worried about meals for this Shabbat. Somehow, he organized a caterer and transport and raised some funds. He sent me this email: “We sent an 18-wheeler refrigerator truck loaded with food to Houston. That had 3,000 meals, they were gone in a few hours. We’re sending another 18,000 meals!”

With one short email, Rabbi Rosenberg, who is in the midst of recovering from surgery, taught me that when it comes to our eternal values as Jews, nothing can stop us — and the credit goes to Hurricane Harvey. Were it not for Harvey’s raging winds, my friend and all those working tirelessly to rescue and help others would not have discovered and appreciated the depth of their inner spirit.

My friends, let us always remember that we Americans are a resilient people and can withstand any crisis. We saw great courage and compassion in the rescue workers on 9/11, in Katrina and now with Harvey. We may get knocked on our side from time to time, but that only helps us find our inner core. Americans are a people whose compassion has changed the world. We have rescued and kept the world safe for 100 years.

G-d commands us in the Torah (Deuteronomy 15:11,10): Pato-ach tiftach et yadcha l’achicha (You must open your hand to your brother, to your poor and to your destitute in your land. … Let not your heart feel bad when you give him, for in return for this, Hashem, your G-d, will bless you in all your deeds and in all that you do).

Hurricane Harvey was an awful event. But it’s also an opportunity for us to be G-d’s partner and strengthen our relationship with Him as we approach Rosh Hashanah, doing our part to make this a better world. A team of Israeli professionals arrived in Houston to help. If you have not reached into your pockets to help, do so immediately after Shabbos. You can do it on the websites from my email yesterday or the email I will send you tonight. Houston, we have a problem, but we can be part of the solution. Amen!

Please consider making a donation to assist the Houston Jewish community in its time of great need: Hurricane Harvey Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund (Rabbi Barry Gelman of Houston); OU Disaster Relief Fund; or Jewish Federation of Greater Houston Hurricane Relief.

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