'Jews, non-Jews, Muslims' Come Together to Help Houston Recover From Harvey

Jews in Texas and around the world are stepping forward offering money, supplies and time for those most impacted by Harvey

HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 29: A Houston resident walks through waist deep water while evacuating her home after severe flooding following Hurricane Harvey in north Houston August 29, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi late Friday evening, is expected to dump upwards of 40 inches of rain over the next couple of days.   Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP
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NEW YORK — Money and supplies are flooding into water-ravaged Houston as the city begins to emerge from the torrential rains and winds of Harvey, which has done unprecedented damage to Bayou City, as it is known. Jews around the world are among those stepping forward offering money, supplies and to volunteer time to those most impacted.

Well over $1 million has been collected for hurricane relief in just the first two or three days of Jewish organizations’ fundraising efforts, according to Haaretz’s calculation.

Over $500,000 has been sent to the Jewish Federation of Houston, and close to that amount raised by the Orthodox Union. Jewish Federations of North America declined to say how much it has raised so far except that it is “in the six figures,” said spokeswoman Rebecca Dinar.

Thousands of Jewish families are among the tens or hundreds of thousands of Houston households severely impacted by the hurricane, said Rabbi Yossi Zaklikofsky, a spokesman for Houston Chabad’s Harvey relief effort. While Houston has been flooded each of the last two years, “the impact this time around is nothing that was seen before.”

Wednesday was the first day that Houstonians were able to begin getting back into their homes, synagogues and other buildings to start assessing the extent of the damage. Which, in many places, meant complete destruction.

For all the damage wreaked by the terrifying storm, which brought flood waters so high that hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes by boat and helicopter, offers to help the Jewish community there rebuild have come from near and far.

Volunteer Elizabeth Hill plays with evacuee Skyler Smith at a shelter at St. Thomas Presbyterian Church in west Houston after Hurricane Harvey on Tuesday August 29, 2017.
Jay Janner/AP
Donated items sit in a loading dock are as volunteers works to organize the items donated for Hurricane Harvey victims, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Dallas, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Elizabeth Conley/AP

That has been the one bright spot amid the devastation, say those in Houston. Her voice breaking with emotion, Taryn Baranowski told Haaretz that Houston’s Jewish community is “overwhelmed and completely and genuinely touched” by how the international Jewish community has “drawn together to support us during this difficult time.”

A team from the Israeli disaster relief organization IsraAid arrived in Houston Wednesday after flying into Dallas. People in Israel and even Mexico have contacted the federation with offers to donate money as well as time, said Baranowski, the chief marketing officer for the Jewish Federation of Houston. “It’s been great to see to how people are coming together to provide food and rebuild homes. We know we’ll need support of the larger Jewish community for a long time to come.”

Innumerable national Jewish organizations, from Chabad to the National Council of Jewish Women and the Union for Reform Judaism, have launched fundraising appeals. And Houston-area Jewish camps are re-opening their doors to shelter evacuees.

Not just a bed and a meal

Camp Young Judea Texas is located about three hours outside of Houston, said director Frank Silverlicht, who lives in Meyerland, the hardest-hit area of the city, and the one in which most of its Jewish population lives.

Donated items sit in a loading dock are as volunteers works to organize the items donated for Hurricane Harvey victims, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Dallas, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Tony Gutierrez/AP
Rescue personnel drive past an abandoned pickup truck in floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey in Dickinson, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. Estimates for damages caused by Hurricane Harvey are climbing with the storm poised to regain strength in the Gulf of Mexico before crashing back on land. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg
Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

The camp can comfortably host more than 200 people. Seventeen stayed there Tuesday night, the first it was open to evacuees, though most of Houston was on lockdown, with roads impassable. The main highway circling the city “was a lake,” he said. Now that floodwaters are receding, the camp is chartering a bus to go into Houston to pick up the remaining families and bring them to camp for the weekend

“We’re trying to run programs for the kids and the adults. People should come and experience camp,” he said, so “they’re not just evacuating to a bed and a meal.”

The outpouring of support has been wonderful, Silverlicht said. “We’ve been getting donations and emails from people we don’t even know. Someone from Mexico wanted to fly in to volunteer. Whatever we need people are offering to help. It feels good,” he said.

Kosher meals

Others are running day camp programs in Houston itself so parents can focus on restoring their lives. The sound of three dozen children playing could be heard during a phone interview with Rabbi Yossi Zaklikofsky, a Chabad emissary. It was a “kids fun zone” his wife, Estee Zaklikofsky, had organized, he said. The Houston area’s 11 Chabad houses have come together to support each other and the larger community in their Chabad Harvey relief campaign said Zaklikofsky, the spokesman for the coordinated effort.

His own house in the Bellaire section of the neighborhood was flooded, forcing him, his wife and their five children ranging from two to 10 years old to the second floor, where they camped out for a couple of days. Zaklikofsky said that he has been inundated with hundreds of phone calls and emails from friends and colleagues around the world.

Austin De La Cruz of Houston, Texas, organizes donations at a drop off point in North Dallas, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. De La Cruz, who evacuated from Houston last Thursday as Harvey grew in strength is staying with friends and said he just had to help somehow. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Tony Gutierrez/AP
A man stands in deep flood water along West Little York Road as Addicks Reservoir surpasses capacity due to near constant rain from Tropical Storm Harvey Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017 in Houston. ( Michael Ciaglo / Houston Chronicle)/Houston Chronicle via AP)
Michael Ciaglo/AP

So far the Chabad effort has raised more than $100,000, he said, and much more will be needed. “We’re trying to help as many people as possible, and the requests keep coming in.”

With the assistance of dozens of volunteers, hundreds of kosher meals have been prepared in Chabad’s kitchen at a Jewish house it runs for patients and their families at Houston Medical Center, he said. The food is sent to evacuees in shelters, like the thousands being housed at the Houston Convention Center, and to area hotels where they are staying.

The unity shown by Houstonians has been deeply moving, said the Chabad rabbi. Once flood waters receded sufficiently for people to walk on his street, a message went out on the neighborhood announcement list and people came right over to his house to take out water-soaked sheetrock and move furniture. “Jews, non-Jews, Muslims, Asians all came,” he said. And Wednesday another group of neighbors came to clean.

Likewise, Chabad’s work is and will continue to benefit anyone in need, he said. “The relief efforts of Chabad are going to everybody and anybody. Not just Jews,” he said. “The average person to turn to us will likely be Jewish but we are here to help every person who needs it.”

Orthodox communities from Baltimore to Lakewood to Scarsdale are banding together to donate supplies by dropping off specific items designated (see list here) at seven Seasons supermarket locations.

 On Monday they will be sent in at least three tractor-trailers of kosher food to Houston, said Zvi Gluck, founder and director of Amudim, an organization that usually focuses on helping those with mental illness, sexual addiction and drug abuse issues. “But here there are people in need, so we’re doing what we can,” said Gluck, who has been working 20 hour days since last weekend.  His agency is working with the OU and Achiezer, as well as kosher food suppliers and trucking companies, in conjunction with city and federal authorities, to get the needed materials to Houston, Gluck said.

After the food arrives Jewish volunteer ambulance network Hatzalah will send down volunteers to unpack and distribute it. There will also be a group of construction professionals who go down to help people rip up ruined carpeting and rip out destroyed walls from their homes.

Erin Zaikis spoke with Haaretz while the IsraAID contingent of seven people stopped at a gas station to refuel outside of Houston. The highway ringing the city was still under water said Zaikis, executive director of the group’s U.S. office, and people needed boats to get around.

She was with a couple of therapists, water engineers and experts in debris clearing trying to get into the city. More psychosocial support therapists would be joining them by the end of the week, she said.

They had flown into Dallas, since Houston’s was still shut down, hosted by Jewish families there, and were bringing with them all of the food and supplies they will need for the coming weeks. Their plan is to go into shelters, from the convention center to churches, to support traumatized Houstonians and bring Israeli technology to help clean now-dirty water. Half their team is Israelis and half Americans, she said. IsraAid is trying to raise $114,000 needed to cover the cost of their work.

“The past few months in America have been really insane but this is incredibly hopeful,” she said. “We are bombarded with messages of ‘what can we do?’ Israelis, Americans, friends in India, people from NY, California and Germany, they just all want to help.

“Differences fall away when you see how impacted people here are and how they just need our help,” Zaikis said.