Synagogue flooded by
Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

When Hurricane Harvey swept through Houston and surrounding areas in August 2017, raging floods sent people fleeing to rooftops to escape the rising waters. The Jewish community was particularly hard hit, with more than 2,000 Jewish households flooded. Seven Jewish institutions, including two of the largest synagogues, a day school, the JCC, and a senior care center, faced significant or catastrophic damage.

Deborah Joselow, UJA’s chief planning officer, saw firsthand the destruction when she flew to Houston just days after the storm to offer the expertise that we had gained in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

“Everyone has a story. In the elevator, on the sidewalk, standing in the parking lot, the stories pour out, each more harrowing then the last,” she reported during her visit. “The woman at the hotel who has lost her home twice in two years. The guy on line who was evacuated and doesn’t know what is left. It is all a little overwhelming to be honest … The front lines are full of storm victims who quietly — and without hesitation — are doing what needs to be done. I feel fortunate to meet these remarkable people and to be able to offer some help.”

People stepped up in ways large and small. Right after the storm, former UJA president, Jerry Levin, chairman of Lasko Products, arranged for 1,000 fans to be donated and delivered to the JCC. These fans were desperately needed to prevent mold.

UJA’s support, close to $1 million, was used for cash assistance; scholarships for families of early-childhood school students; vans for senior transport; meal-prep equipment; and relocation costs for a day school, early childhood center, and a congregation’s High Holiday services. We also provided assistance for the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston to develop a long-term disaster relief strategy and advocacy plan.

“We couldn’t have helped the way we did if not for the generosity of our donors,” says Eric S. Goldstein, UJA’s CEO, adding, “This is what federations are uniquely equipped to do — harness the power of the community and use our wide reach and experience to help wherever we can. We can be there for people when their lives are upended, and we can give them the tools to rebuild and heal.”

Rebuilding the Jewish Community of Houston

“It meant the world to us to have the support of other Jewish communities,” recalls Gittel Francis, a social worker and special projects coordinator at Jewish Family Service of Houston. “You showed us that we weren’t alone in our struggles.”

Now, one year later, many Houston residents are still rebuilding their lives.

“Without question people are still struggling with the emotional toll and the financial devastation,” Gittel says.

Our funding also supported mental health services through the Israel Trauma Coalition (ITC), which is working with the community to help people transition from the hurricane’s devastating impact on their lives to a new normal.

ITC, which UJA founded in response to the 2001 intifada, is a leading international expert in the field of trauma relief and provides vital support when crisis strikes in Israel and around the world.

“In April, July, and August, the ITC came to Houston to do a ‘train the trainers’ session with 14 community agencies,” Gittel explains. ITC also trained first-responders, school administrators, and teachers.

As part of the ITC training, local mental health professionals learned coping techniques that help people in crisis — during acute trauma and its aftermath. An important component also included self-care for behavioral health specialists and other professionals so they can continue to do their emotionally demanding work.

“Many of the participants have supervisory roles in their agencies and can bring back these techniques to their staff,” Gittel says. This creates a network of support for the whole community.

Gittel says she also helps people learn to accept assistance when they are in need.

“Some people, who were always the ones giving to help support an agency, felt unsure about ‘taking,’” she notes. “I tell them, ‘And one day you’ll be able to give back again.’”