Victor Khoury, a Houston resident born in Jordan whose home was destroyed in Tropical Storm Harvey, believes “divine payback” sent Rabbi Yehoshua Lewis and a team from Mesorah NJ to help his family.
Khoury, an “Orthodox Christian Palestinian,” had assisted three Russian-Jewish families around 1990 who were looking to leave the former Soviet Union. So when the kipa-wearing Lewis and several volunteers walked into what was left of Khoury’s home, he knew immediately it was God’s way of rewarding him for his kindness.
“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” he told NJJN in a phone conversation. “I was blessed to have them. They were great people. We prayed with them and thanked the Lord and praised them for coming to help. The rabbi was very courteous and they were all friendly. This is the way it should be because we should treat all human beings equally. We all have the same red blood.”
Lewis, a Highland Park resident, founded Mesorah NJ two years ago with his wife, Esther, to provide an outlet for young adults of various levels of observance to find a social and religious outlet with their peers. He said that after witnessing the flooding and destruction in Houston he put out a call on Facebook for volunteers to join him, and asked for donations to fund the trip; through those efforts they raised almost $5,000 and 18 people offered to volunteer. A group of 10 departed for Houston the Saturday evening of Sept. 16 and returned to New Jersey late on the following Monday.
As soon as Lewis entered his home, Khoury recalled saying to him, “‘You are Jewish. I am a Christian person,’ and we shook hands and started laughing. Politics is not my line. I believe we are all human beings, all children of God.”
His wife, Mary, who was born in the Old City of Jerusalem, but largely grew up in Kuwait, said that a group of Jews coming from New Jersey and helping an Arab family was “what we want; more peace and love and not to be destructive. This is what the world needs.”
Khoury, who moved from Jordan to Europe with his family when he was young, had owned a restaurant and other businesses in a Russian community east of Moscow when he agreed to help three Jewish families transfer assets after their departure.
“They were not allowed to take even one ruble out of the country with them, so they gave us their money and we deposited it,” said Khoury, who also sold their property. Two of the families moved to New York City, the other to Tel Aviv, and the Khourys sent their money to them after they were out of the country.
A financial adviser, Khoury said he has had many positive interactions with Jews over the years, and Mary said one of the couple’s 19-year-old twin daughters is living with a Jewish friend while away at college.
The couple also has four older children from Mary’s first marriage, including a son who is a U.S. Army colonel. Until Oct. 10 the family can stay in a hotel paid for by FEMA, but the Khourys have remained in their home — which has withstood three previous hurricanes — where they’ve lived since 1991. Victor has vowed to rebuild it because, he said, “I want to leave it for my children and grandchildren.”
Mesorah NJ has chapters in Highland Park, Morristown, and Hoboken/Jersey City. It is affiliated with the Mesorah USA network, founded in 2004 as the young professional branch of Israel-based MEOR, which engages in outreach to college students and young adults to strengthen knowledge of their history and identity.
As it was the weekend before Rosh HaShanah and Lewis had coordinated the trip through the Minnesota-based organization Nechama: A Jewish Response to Disaster, he assumed his group would be assigned to help Jewish families prepare for the holiday.
Instead, they were put to work gutting two houses. The first day they were sent to the Houston home of Dennis and Nicole Partin, which was flooded with 6 feet of water; the Khoury home had 4 feet.
“We used a hammer and crowbar to take off the sheet rock, all the molding, cabinets, everything that had been touched by water, which had raw sewage in it,” said Lewis. “It was hot and smelled really bad. They had to throw out everything. Clothing, bedding, furniture refrigerators, appliances — all gone. The front lawn was filled.”
The N.J. volunteers received accolades from the Partins.
“It was really a beautiful moment to see how grateful they were,” Lewis said. “The couple on the first day said they didn’t have much exposure to Jews, but they were just amazed that a group that wasn’t even Christian had come all the way from New Jersey to help them. They were actually, like, crying.”
That neither family was Jewish was irrelevant and he said the experience turned out “to be a great teaching moment” about the power and good feelings engendered by helping others.
“My only motivation was to help the people of Houston,” said Lewis. “The biggest lesson we learned is that people are so nice and giving. We saw other groups and met other volunteers from around the country, some of whom had been there for weeks. It was pretty amazing.”
Jeremy Garrell of Morristown said he went because he wanted to do more than just donate money.
“I knew manpower would be needed,” said the 25-year-old software developer, who had seen photos of Houston in the aftermath of the storm but was still taken aback by the level of damage.
“The first 15-20 minutes riding in it didn’t look too bad and then we got to the neighborhood where we’d be working,” said Garrell, who was not unfamiliar with volunteerism of this nature, as he had helped an individual in need build a house in West Virginia about seven years before. “It was pretty crazy to see walls of rubble and piles of furniture.”
It was “a shock” to see the condition of the two houses, he said, but the homeowners “were happy these young people came all the way from New Jersey to help.”
Also on the humanitarian trip were Jason Gessner and Noah Glyn of East Brunswick, both Rutgers University graduates, who knew Lewis from his days as a leader of Rutgers Jewish Xperience. Gessner said that he felt he needed to see the devastation firsthand.
“I didn’t know what to expect but seeing it in person made it so much more powerful,” he said. “It really makes you understand how a natural disaster can really destroy everything.”
The 24-year-old Gessner, who volunteers annually on Super Sunday to make calls for the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, said that despite the overwhelming loss suffered by the Houston community, there was some comfort in seeing how their presence “lifted up” the spirits of the homeowners.
A New Jersey state budget analyst, Glyn volunteers for Tomchei Shabbos in East Brunswick, packing weekly Shabbat meals for low-income people. He said he was bewildered by the uneven path of Harvey.
“In some parts of the city you’d never know there had been a storm, and in other parts all the houses and businesses are completely wrecked with devastation like I’ve never seen,” he said. “It was like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie, with trash piled high by homes.”
Glynn, 28, was inspired by the strength of the residents who, he said, were working “in the muck and mud with us,” but said it’s unfortunate that these kinds of interactions are so unusual.
“It’s a shame that it takes a disaster like this to bring out the best in human nature.”