Shortly after Tropical Storm Harvey slammed into Houston, Rabbi Shira Stern left Marlboro with a Red Cross team, determined to provide spiritual care to those affected.
However, with Houston’s airports closed, she was rerouted to Austin before being sent to Dallas, where she found the roads to Houston flooded and impassable. Even so, there was still much work to be done. She and her team of six volunteer chaplains stayed in Dallas, where thousands of victims had found shelter.
“There were people there who lost almost everything,” Stern told NJJN. “There were some who lost family members or who had family members missing. As chaplains, we provided spiritual care as needed. Sometimes that meant sitting down next to someone and listening to their story. Sometimes that meant helping the staff sort through bags and bags of clothing.”
As New Jersey’s coleader of disaster spiritual care for the American Red Cross, Stern has found herself trying to comfort victims over and over again, including in the aftermaths of 9/11, Superstorm Sandy, the Boston Marathon bombing, and floods last year in North Carolina and West Virginia. She also serves as rabbinic associate at Temple Rodeph Torah and director of the Center for Pastoral Care and Counseling, both in Marlboro.
“I was responsible for being the go-between for the Red Cross and community of first responders and to be supportive of the Red Cross staff — for some this was their first deployment,” said Stern of her 12 days in Texas. “I was also there to make sure we had all the resources necessary. I made sure Muslim families had halal food. There would have been kosher food if we had Jewish evacuees. I would have made sure of that.”
She said five shelters had been designated for evacuees in Dallas, including the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center, which took in 3,500 people who were forced to flee their homes.
“It was kind of daunting to see 3,500 people sleeping in one room,” said Stern. “There was an incredible outpouring of support on behalf of the Dallas community and my job was to find community partners who we could integrate into our work so that when we left they could continue the relationship with these people.”
While attending Shabbat services at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas days after arriving, she spoke to the synagogue rabbi, Debra Robbins, who posted a call for volunteers on her Facebook page, producing a wellspring of support from throughout the area’s Jewish community.
To meet the needs of the evacuees, Stern also contacted local Christian pastors, who responded to the call for help with their congregants. Joining in the effort was a Houston-based organization, Undies for Everyone, whose founder and executive director is Rabbi Amy Weiss. As of Sept. 11, it had delivered 300,650 pairs of clean underwear to victims, including 9,000 for the Jewish Community Center of Greater Houston, according to the organization’s website. The organization is now collecting for Hurricane Irma victims.
“It was amazing to see how quickly the faith community stepped up to the plate,” said Stern.
For those who want to help victims, she said, the most practical thing to do is to send gift cards for places like Amazon or Target. Also, although some evacuees have returned to the Houston area, others are commuting between Dallas and Houston, a two-and-a-half-to-three-hour trip, and could use gas cards.
As soon as he learned that the Jewish community in Houston was running out of kosher food, Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg of Edison arranged the delivery of 3,000 meals to the area for the first Shabbat following the natural disaster.
“Helping humanity is the greatest mitzvah,” said Rosenberg, who coordinated with rabbis in Texas who had already set up food drop-off sites in Clifton and Lakewood. He said people from Middlesex and Monmouth brought kosher and non-kosher food to Lakewood; the non-kosher items were kept separate on the truck.
“I didn’t want it to seem like we only cared” about people who keep kosher, said Rosenberg, who sent out hundreds of press releases and “literally over 1,000 emails” to solicit donations.
“While we were focused on providing Shabbos meals and kosher food we wanted to help everybody,” said Rosenberg, noting that he contacted 23 people he works with in his role as a mashgiach, a kosher food supervisor, and others. “I got some really good responses.”
He said his actions were prompted by a call from Rabbi Bentzi Epstein of the Dallas Area Torah Association, who asked Rosenberg for help in coordinating the drive.
“I was very concerned when I heard they were running out of kosher food,” Rosenberg told NJJN. “I was watching the pictures and found out a lot of observant Jews were in the flood-impacted areas.”
The rabbi’s efforts went beyond making sure the victims had enough to eat. He also raised about $12,000. The majority was sent to Houston, the remainder to Atlanta for food, clothing, and supplies for about 2,000 members of Houston’s Jewish community who were housed and cared for by Orthodox shuls there.
Rosenberg is now working with Rabbi Mark Rosenberg (no relation), director of the Florida division of Chesed Shel Emes, which helps families in crisis, and who is a chaplain for the Florida Highway Patrol and North Miami Beach Police Department, to help victims of Hurricane Irma.
Bernhard Rosenberg said the organization rescued 30 elderly Holocaust survivors who were found without food or water in apartments in North Miami Beach, and brought down 1,000 ready-to-eat meals from New York for the Jewish community.
The Jewish Federations of North America, along with Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, is collecting money for victims of Irma and Harvey and, as of Sept. 14, the local federation has raised $36,000 from more than 400 donors.
Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick is coordinating with Rutgers University through Project Pillow by collecting new, wrapped pillows for Harvey and Irma victims.
“I just figured it was a nice thing to do now around the anniversary of 9/11 and the High Holy Days,” said Dr. Iris Udasin, temple social action chair. “I really feel money is something everyone should be giving on their own to the Red Cross or federation or other charities. I really felt this was just an uplifting, feel-good thing we could do as a community.”
Udasin, a professor of environmental and occupational medicine at the university’s medical school, said evacuees returning to flooded areas will have to throw out their old pillows because of mold contamination.
“Personally, this was just a fun, important thing to do,” said Udasin, who has spent years in charge of the treatment and monitoring of 1,700 Sept. 11 first responders from New Jersey.
The religious school students at Congregation Kol Am of Freehold are collecting pet food, supplies, and money for the Monmouth County SPCA, which has taken in many dogs and cats from shelters in Texas and Florida, said its president, Susan Canter.
Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick is collecting school supplies, clothing, and toiletries, which it will deliver to Houston after Yom Kippur, according to youth director David White, who is coordinating the project.
Because Alyson Bazeley, the wife of assistant rabbi Philip Bazeley, is youth program associate at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, the two synagogues are partnering in the project.
White said congregant Fred Kaimann, who drove a truckload of supplies to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, has once again volunteered for the task and will be joined by another volunteer driver from B’nai Jeshurun.
“This is really a team effort,” White said. “Our congregants reached out early to our rabbis and staff. After all, we live in an area that is not suffering so they wanted to help others who are.”