When the hurricane struck last year, the Houston Federation and the JFNA immediately set up the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund to help with both pressing relief needs and long-term ones, such as rebuilding Jewish institutions and homes, addressing mental health issues, supporting the continuity of Jewish life, and developing flood mitigation and community resiliency efforts

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Houston after Hurricane Harvey
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At 7 months pregnant, Yael Ross was eagerly anticipating the birth of her first child. After finishing their nursery, she and her husband, Scott, decided to squeeze in a ‘babymoon’ to Denver.

That’s when it happened. More than 19 trillion gallons of water descended on Houston, more than a year’s worth of rain in just five days – the disaster otherwise known as Hurricane Harvey.

The Rosses helplessly watched it all unfold on their home security camera. Three feet of water destroyed their brand-new nursery and home, creeping up the walls inch by inch. “It was terrible. It was very stressful and emotional,” Ross says. “The crib was broken. The changing table was broken. It was really sad. All the gifts from the baby shower were ruined.” And the expecting couple was now homeless.

Just like the Rosses, Jewish families across Houston were experiencing feelings of desperation, heartbreak and loss. A staggering 2,000 Jewish households were impacted by Harvey. And that was just the start of the devastation to this tightknit community. Seven major Houston Jewish institutions suffered extensive or catastrophic flood damage, including two of the largest synagogues, a day school, the JCC and a senior care center. Institutional damage alone exceeded $50 million. No other Jewish community in the country had witnessed such widespread destruction. This was unchartered

Donors raised more than $22 million

It was also new ground for Avital Ingber, who had just accepted the position of CEO and President of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. Ingber hadn’t even moved to Houston yet, but she immediately flew to the besieged city. “I knew I needed to get there and be with the community as soon as possible,” Ingber says. “But it wasn’t until I landed and saw the destruction firsthand that I began to understand the magnitude of what had happened.”

The Jewish community in Houston, across the United States, and around the world did not hesitate to help. Tens of thousands of donors raised more than $22 million for the relief fund, including a $1 million donation from the State of Israel.

Hundreds of volunteers also dropped everything to go help the Houston community.

Jeff Rum, former Co-Chair of the National Young Leadership Cabinet, headed to Texas as a part of an organized “Fly-In” opportunity to assess the damage and provide assistance.

Rum was amazed by how Houston was a perfect example of the power of the Jewish Federation: “When one Federation is suffering, the rest of the system can help. If there was a catastrophe in Washington, I know the Federations around the country would be there to support us.” Steve Halpern of the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh saw the same powerful collaboration when he traveled to Houston post-Harvey. “It showed me that a community can really band together in creative ways to figure out the best ways to help people,” Halpern says.

Many people are still displaced

A year later, much has changed in Houston. People have dug out from under damage and begun rebuilding. More than $5 million has been allocated to sustain Jewish life through scholarships for camps and day schools, preschool programs and Israel experiences.

The Rosses received much needed help from the Houston Federation and Jewish Family Services. “People we didn’t even know were cleaning, removing floors and packing with us,” Yael Ross says. Today, the family has a new home and a beautiful 10-month-old baby boy. “The outpouring of love and support we received during this difficult time reminded us of two things: how blessed we are to be part of the Houston Jewish Community and how important it is for us and our growing family to be active members of our community.”

But the effects from Harvey are far from over. “We’re grateful for how far Houston’s community has come, but there are miles to go. Many people are still displaced and suffering, and we want them to know that we are still there for them,” says Mark Gurvis, Jewish Federations of North America Executive Vice President. Gail Norry, Chair of Houston Federation’s Emergency Committee, echoes that sentiment. “I’m so proud of the work that we’ve done and the money that has been raised, but I am conscious of the fact that the job isn’t done. I want people to know that there is still opportunity to go, help and be there for the community.”

Given the devastation of Harvey and the fact that Houston has experienced three 500-year floods in the past three years, the Houston Federation is now looking forward with resolve. It plans to build an emergency fund for the future, not just for Houston, but other parts of the country, which is critical to Ingber: “Going forward, we want to make sure we can be there for our Jewish brothers and sisters, the way they were there for us.”

To donate to JFNA’s Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, go to jewishfederations.org/hurricane-harvey-relief-fund