UJA’s chief planning officer, Deborah Joselow, shares an update from the field in Houston.


It is hard to track time in a disaster zone but there was no doubt about welcoming Shabbat. Friday night I had the privilege of joining members of Congregation Beth Israel whose senior rabbi, David Lyon, is a seminary classmate. Rabbi Lyon reminded all of us gathered in the chapel that this week’s Torah portion instructs us in the responsibility of finding and returning lost property. This principle of seeking to reunite owner and object can also be applied to the non-material loss.

Rabbi Lyon urged a tearful congregation to be passionately present for one another as the Houston community seeks to rebuild both home and heart. The sanctuary of Congregation Beth Israel, rebuilt and rededicated in January, has been ruined. It wasn’t even mentioned Friday night, as the focus of this Shabbat was the human dimension of this storm.

The JCC tennis center (the only building in the complex not damaged) was overwhelmed this morning — with volunteers, with carloads of people donating goods, and carloads of people seeking material supplies and support. A team from Jewish Family Service was on-site making the tennis center a one-stop of services, everything from cash assistance to FEMA guidance. And there were FANS. 1,000 of them donated by Lasko Products. They left the building faster than the time it took to unload them from the truck.

Offers of help continue to pour in. Housing remains an issue. We are working hard to find accommodations for disaster relief workers from Nechama and volunteer medical teams from Heart to Heart that are seasoned in responding to natural disasters. We are also in the midst of doing an inventory of families in Jewish educational settings to try to ascertain the impact of the storm on students and faculty.

West Houston was evacuated Saturday afternoon. They are purposefully releasing water in the immediate vicinity of the reservoir to prevent further flooding in other neighborhoods. What a strange concept that a home could survive the storm but be lost to intentional flooding.

Beaumont, an area about 100 miles east of Houston, was badly hit and remains difficult to access. We got them a truckload of water today. We also arranged for a truckload of cleaning supplies that should arrive there Wednesday. A UJA leader, who is from Beaumont, connected me to her friend who is the president of a Beaumont synagogue.

That’s the way this is all working — someone who knows someone who is willing to call someone. We are hoping this kind of chain works some magic as we search for a new home for Bnai Yeshurun Day School. We will know more soon.

I am married to a southerner, so I am used to warmth and charm, but the outpouring here continues to astonish. 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.

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. The JFS professional in charge of cash assistance whose in-laws were rescued by a fire department boat only to die when that boat overturned in the raging waters and they drowned. Yet, there she was, sharing her story, putting in another 12-hour day trying to help others and thanking us for showing up to help. It is all a little overwhelming to be honest. The devastation. The dedication. The kindness.

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.

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