Houston's Jewish Community Faces 'Biblical' Flood as Hurricane Harvey Drenches Texas

With most of the city's 63,000 Jews residing in areas hardest hit, 'community is key,' one rabbi tells Haaretz

Evacuees at the Houston Convention Center in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Houston, Texas, U.S., August 27, 2017.
Courtesy Rabbi Danny Horwitz

The floods that have overtaken Houston, Texas, have impacted the Jewish community there with deadly force as waters cover the area hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey, which is also the heart of the Jewish community.

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“The level of rain that we’re seeing here is Biblical,” said David Krohn, a cantor at Houston’s Congregation Brith Shalom. “It’s diluvian rain all day and all night, rain that keeps accumulating,” said Krohn, who is also director of development at the Houston Grand Opera, where the orchestra pit, stage and costume shop are presently under several feet of water. “Many people’s homes are completely lost.”

Close to three quarters of the 63,000 people living in Jewish households there reside in the areas hardest hit by the flooding, said Lee Wunsch, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. And while the city has faced other recent floods, this is the most extreme. “You can’t imagine what it’s like living in a community that has experienced three major floods in less than two years, and this was the worst one. It is almost unbelievable,” Wunsch said. “We have received half our total yearly rainfall in just three days and it is still raining.”

After hitting Houston hard on Sunday, Hurricane Harvey has moved into the Gulf of Mexico, but is expected to return north on Wednesday. In addition to Houston’s Jewish Federation, out of town organizations from Jewish Federations of North America to Agudath Israel have opened disaster relief funds. Houston’s Jewish Family Service has also opened a crisis relief hotline staffed with therapists available for people who have hurricane-related anxiety.

Rabbi Danny Horwitz at the Houston Convention Center after being evacuated from his home in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Houston, Texas, U.S., August 27, 2017.
Courtesy Rabbi Danny Horwitz

“The freeway system appears to be almost shut down. You can’t go anywhere without hitting an area with water all over the highway,” said Stuart Shapiro, a family practice doctor in Houston whose street was flooded, but whose house – so far – hasn’t been affected. It is located in Highland Village, about four miles west of the part of the city that was hit the hardest. But areas that have never before flooded are now being inundated with rainfall and rising bayou water, he said. “You see people waiting to be rescued on the roof of their cars,” he said. “It’s very, very stressful.” With rain still falling and the center of the storm expected to return to the city Wednesday, Houston “is in a state of shock and paralysis,” Shapiro said.

While on an ordinary day he would see about 25 patients, Shapiro’s office is closed because none of the staff members can get to work. When he went shopping Friday the supermarket shelves were bare. “Bread, zero. Water, nothing. Dairy products were gone,” he said. Seeing the outpouring of help from surrounding areas, however, has been heartening, he said. A group of airboat owners from Louisiana known as “the Cajun Navy” has come to rescue people, and many who own flat-bottomed boats are also volunteering.

Congregation Brith Shalom, the Conservative synagogue where David Krohn works, is housing some evacuated families, he said. Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center is home to thousands more, including that of local rabbi Danny Horwitz.

Horwitz and his wife were busy moving valuables, including some of his nearly 5,000 books of Jewish text, to higher shelves Sunday when they realized that rising floodwaters meant they had to get out of their home in the Meyerland section of Houston, where most of the community’s Jews live.

Meyerland, which is right by Braes Bayou, is also home to the Houston Jewish Community Center and several synagogues, including Congregation Beth Yeshurun, the Conservative synagogue where Horwitz works part time. Meyerland was also flooded in May 2015.

Horwitz called 911, but a queue of callers had the local emergency services line tied up. Then Horwitz heard about a young man, a life guard, who was in town to interview for medical school, and was helping people evacuate. The rabbi, his wife and 29-year-old son packed small bags with a change of clothing, toiletries and a couple of books – the rabbi’s also with his tallit and tefillin. When the lifeguard came, an elderly neighbor and her daughter sat on the rafts he brought. The rabbi and his family put their overnight bags on the rafts and held on so they didn’t get swept away by the current, and trudged through the water to a firehouse a mile away. Then a bus took them to the convention center, where they arrived last night five hours after leaving home, Horwitz said. 

Now, they are there with “2,500 new friends,” Horwitz said from the convention center, adding that still more evacuees arrived on Monday. He expects to remain there for a couple more days. After that, Horwitz said, he hopes the waters will have receded sufficiently to make the roads passable so they can get to friends who have offered to take them in until they can return home.

“Whenever it floods in Houston there is high water in our neighborhood,” Horwitz said. “But we’ve never had anything near what we experienced on Sunday.”

Rabbi Barry Gelman is hoping to enter his synagogue on Tuesday to see how much damage Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters have caused to the building, which sits between two bayous. For now he can only guess what havoc has been wreaked by more than five feet of water filling the sanctuary. His congregation, United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, moved most of its Torah scrolls on Friday. But they left one at the synagogue, which was used during services Saturday. Now Gelman isn’t sure what condition it may be in. “Closed until further notice,” says the synagogue’s home page.

Members of the 320-family congregation have been focused on surviving, Gelman said. His family evacuated by boat to another community member’s home. But an elderly member who could not swim drowned in her home, he said.

Many congregants have called him for counsel since Sunday. “The first thing people think when they see there have been 2, 3 or 4 feet of water in their house is that they have to do this alone. People think that they’ll never be able to recover. At this point the best that I can do is reassure them that there’s a community infrastructure to help them, that they shouldn’t panic and they should lean on community members,” he said. “That’s what community is for. That’s why we do this. To help each other. People find that comforting,” he said. “Community is key here.”