People of the Books: Grassroots Effort Helps Houston’s Jewish Community Replace Holy Texts

As the community addresses its basic needs, volunteers help replace Houston's Jewish prayer books before the upcoming High Holy Days

Thousands of religious Jewish books ruined by the flooding from Hurricane Harvey in Houston are carted off for burial.
Barry Gelman

Ten feet of water flooded Rabbi Jill Levy’s office at Houston’s only Jewish Community Center where she serves as director. The fallout from the Hurricane Harvey destroyed her library of Jewish books and texts, along with everything else in it.

At the nearby United Orthodox Synagogues, four feet of flood waters filled Rabbi Barry Gelman’s study. Over half of the synagogue library's prayer books were ruined, the water coming within inches of the Torah ark that housed the one remaining Torah scroll that had been used for Shabbat services ahead of the hurricane.

Hundreds of miles away from the devastation in Houston, Gelman's colleagues around the country have reached out to help replace what was lost. After coordinating on a WhatsApp group, essential prayer books and other texts are now en route to the synagogue.

Meanwhile, a broader grassroots effort is underway to help get the Jewish community in Houston the books they need – from Talmuds and siddurim to Hebrew books for children. Although the community is dealing with basic needs such as housing first, the confluence of the upcoming High Holidays and the beginning of the school year means that time is of the essence.  

“We are flying by the seat of our pants here,” said Sara Shapiro-Plevin, a Jewish educational consultant in New York City and one of the creators of this online database.

Here the local community has a place to list the teaching materials and books that they need, while donors can list what they have available. The database is making the rounds on social media and has spread amongst the wider community via various networks of rabbis, synagogues and libraries.

Shapiro-Plevin is the moderator of JEDLAB, a network on Facebook of some 8,000 Jewish educators and people involved in Jewish education at day schools, congregations and camps. Having been involved in the database, JEDLAB is now seeking funds for shipping the books that donors are unable to cover themselves, as well as volunteers to help carry out the operation.

Damaged Jewish prayer books and other Jewish texts being sorted through at United Orthodox Synagogues in Houston.
Barry Gelman

“We will need a lot of help. We will need volunteers and resources to make this happen and for people to give their own tzedekah and chesed,” Shapiro-Plevin said, using the Hebrew words for charity and kindness.

“No one will make any money off this. It will take an effort to keep this together. It’s really key we get the correct resources to the people who actually need them instead of flooding them with things they don’t need.”

She said she and her colleagues were looking for other ways to be useful to the Jewish community in Houston.

“We have colleagues in Houston and our hearts are breaking for them and when we saw what was going on, we wanted to help with resources and support for something that someone else is not taking care of,” she said.

Sue Fendrick, a rabbi and editor from Newton, Massachusetts, has been among those mobilizing online to spread the word about the database.

“This is a very specific Jewish need and it is something special Jews can provide – it’s a unique situation,” she said.

According to the city’s Jewish federation, 71 percent of the city’s 60,000 Jews live in areas that were flooded.

Gelman, the rabbi of United Orthodox Synagogues, said he wishes there had been time to say goodbye to the building that housed the sanctuary, a room he described as an especially beautiful place to pray.

“It cannot be inhabited now. It’s dangerous now because of mold and things like that. It’s time for the synagogue to think about creating a prayer space that will not flood like this,” he said.

In a Facebook post Tuesday, Fendrick reminded people of the importance of sending books only in direct coordination with their specific counterparts in Houston, writing that “Harvey-affected organizations and individuals are completely maxed out and there is a long road ahead.”

Meanwhile in Florida, synagogue members are likely removing Torah scrolls in advance of Hurricane Irma.

“I feel so badly,” Gelman said. “I pray that one community is enough.”