Texas – As floodwaters continue to recede throughout Houston, residents of the city’s Jewish neighborhoods facing millions of dollars in property damages are grateful to have escaped with their lives.
United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston in Willow Meadows was particularly hard hit by the torrential rains that drenched the city and submerged freeways as previously reported on VIN News.
“Every area in the shul, except the social hall which is raised, had water damage,” Rabbi Barry Gelman told VIN News. “There must have been eight inches to a foot or more in the shul.”
The shul’s elevated aron kodesh stayed dry, sparing the sifrei Torah from water damage.
“This was a catastrophic flood,” said Rabbi Gelman. “There have been other floods before but nothing ever like this. They are saying this is worst ever. Many, many of the shomer Shabbos people in the area who live within walking distance of the shul were affected.”
United Orthodox Synagogues is situated in a low lying area and has 350 member families. Rabbi Gelman, who lives across the street from the shul, said that when he left the shul after Shavuos at approximately 9:30 PM the rain had already begun but the streets were still clear.
“By 12:30 there was water rushing through the front door,” said Rabbi Gelman. “Three of our five children were with us and we evacuated. We had to wade through four feet of water as we crossed the street to shelter in the shul.”
While the Gelmans originally planned to spend the night in the shul’s beis medrash, that plan was quickly scuttled when water began seeping in. The family moved to higher ground: the shul’s social hall.
“We were the only family who was able to get to the shul safely,” noted Rabbi Gelman. “There were some people who swam across the street to go to neighbors on higher ground.”
Several factors contributed to the catastrophic flooding in Houston.
“We had heavy rains prior to Shavuos and the ground was saturated,” observed Rabbi Gelman. “It doesn’t seem that this kind of rain was expected and the fact that the storm just sat over the city and didn’t move was also part of the problem.”
After Tropical Storm Allison devastated the Houston area in 2001, it became apparent that improvements were crucial to prevent future flooding during severe weather events. A much needed drainage project had begun around Purim time, according to Rabbi Gelman, who estimated that the work was expected to be completed within ten months to a year, providing little relief during Monday night’s pounding rains.
For residents of Willow Meadows it was too little, too late.
“I was just busy watching my house drown,” said Rabbi Gelman. “For many people this is a replay of Tropical Storm Allison and it is just a devastating event. Eighty to ninety percent of the things I own are gone. My clothing, half of my library, our pictures, furniture, you name it. Anything that wasn’t on high ground is gone.”
Rabbi Gelman, who has flood insurance, noted that with the high waters came the realization of what really matters most in life.
“As devastating as this is, it is just stuff,” said Rabbi Gelman. “No one was hurt in our community. People died in this storm in other parts of Texas and I have been thinking about how fragile and how easily destroyed the physical things are, which makes you realize the strength and indestructibility of the human capital.”
Morning brought with it an end to the rains and the beginning of an incredible display of human kindness.
“People here have done unbelievable things,” said Rabbi Gelman. “Right when the sun came up Tuesday morning members of my shul were out in kayaks and rafts evacuating the elderly from flooded homes to high ground. I got a call from someone asking me to move in with my five kids. We could be out of our house for months.”
Most of the floodwaters had receded by 1 PM on Tuesday, leaving community members to deal with the massive cleanup effort.
“We have one crew that is tearing out carpets,” said Rabbi Gelman. “Since the main shul is built on an incline, water gathers in front towards the bima and we are vacuuming out the water. We removed all of the seforim from the beis medrash because of the humidity and any seforim that were on the bottom shelves are a total loss. All of the shul’s sheetrock has to be taken out a few inches above the flood line and we are arranging to turn the social hall into the shul for the foreseeable future.”
With schools closed due to the flooding, local students have pitched in, offering their services in flood ravaged areas.
“There are half a dozen high school yeshiva students from the Robert M. Beren Academy who have been in my house for hours, cataloging, bagging, and throwing stuff out,” remarked Rabbi Gelman. “There is that same number of kids from public schools and day schools across the street in the shul, stacking books and moving chumashim to the other side of the building.”
Residents of the nearby Jewish community in Fondren who were not as heavily impacted by the storm called Rabbi Gelman to offer their services.
“There are people offering to drive us anywhere because so many of our cars are flooded and they volunteered to pick up our laundry, wash it for us and bring it back,” said Rabbi Gelman. “The chesed that emerges from this is so powerful. I have gotten phone calls, emails and texts from rabbis and national organizations all over the country who want to know how they can help. As devastating as this is it highlights people’s capacity to ease the pain, the ‘imo anochi b’tzara.’”
The rabbi of a nearby conservative synagogue contacted Rabbi Gelman offering him the opportunity to use their facilities while necessary repairs are made to the shul.
“He said to me, ‘Larry, whatever you need, including a place to daven. We will put up a mechitza for you.’”
Rabbi Lazer Lazaroff of Chabad at Texas Medical Center lives in one of the Jewish neighborhoods that emerged relatively unscathed, thanks to improvements made after Tropical Storm Allison.
“They invested millions in drainage in this area,” said Rabbi Lazaroff. “If there was any flooding during the night it all drained away.”
Two supermarkets which serve Houston’s Jewish community were hard hit by flooding, according to Rabbi Lazaroff.
“The Jewish community will feel the effects of this for a little while until the stores get back on their feet,” said Rabbi Lazaroff.
The Meyerland Minyan was another shul that found itself partially submerged.
“People’s tefillin were destroyed as were so many machzorim and siddurim,” said Rabbi Gidon Moskovitz. “The flooring is destroyed. The seforim on the lower shelves were destroyed. The furniture was destroyed. But Baruch Hashem everyone in the community is okay.”
The Meyerland Minyan has a membership of 70 families, several of whom had up to four feet of water in their homes.
“People lost everything,” said Rabbi Moskovitz. “Their homes, their cars, everything.”
Rabbi Steven Weil, senior managing director of the Orthodox Union, was in Texas this week, and spent part of Wednesday touring the devastation in Houston’s Jewish communities.
“They are racing against the clock, getting the drywall and sheetrock ripped out because of the potential of mold,” said Rabbi Weil. “There was no way they could have prepared for this. Seeing this really brings you back to Hurricane Sandy.”
Despite all the damage brought by the deluge, Rabbi Weil said that the silver lining to this storm is easy to see.
“Community members are supporting each other,” said Rabbi Weil. “People are having others staying in their homes, cooking for each other – there is a real sense of achdus. It is a déjà vu moment, like after Hurricane Sandy hit Long Island.”
“The community is bigger than its buildings,” added Houston resident Yaakov Polatsek. “In times like this you really see it.”