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Houston Federation launches rebuilding campaign
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Houston Federation launches rebuilding campaign

Goal of $30 million for Jewish institutions hit hard by Harvey

Rabbi Shira Stern of Marlboro is a disaster spiritual care provider for the American Red Cross. Courtesy JTA/Shira Stern
Rabbi Shira Stern of Marlboro is a disaster spiritual care provider for the American Red Cross. Courtesy JTA/Shira Stern

A week after Houston’s latest round of extensive floods wreaked havoc on the city, Jewish Houstonians yet again are joining their neighbors in picking up the pieces — and rebuilding their lives and homes.

For many members of Houston’s growing 50,000-member Jewish community, Category 4 Hurricane Harvey brought a sense of déjà vu, the third extensive flooding in a little more than a year.

“We’ve been hit pretty hard,” said Taryn Baranowski, chief marketing officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, which is starting a $30 million fund-raising drive for renovations at community institutions. Three congregations, the Jewish community center, the Seven Acres senior citizens residence, and the TORCH community kollel sustained the worst damage. The city’s Jewish day schools, except for the Robert M. Beren Academy, are closed this week; most expect to reopen next week.

“We know that it’s more than a thousand homes impacted [in the Jewish community] — we expect it to be larger than that,” Baranowski said. “Homes will be under water for the next 10 to 15 days. People are devastated,” she added. Even Houstonians who have coped with past floods have “never seen anything on this scale.”

“We’re a strong community. We’re a resilient community,” Baranowski said. “We support each other.”

Among the out-of-town volunteers who have come to Texas in recent days to help out, one from New Jersey has a particularly personal view of the emotional impact Harvey has had: Rabbi Shira Stern, rabbinic associate at Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro, has taken part in a series of ecumenical prayer services in Dallas as director of disaster spiritual care for the American Red Cross, heading an interfaith team of 11 chaplains.

While Houston this week began to count its losses and start to repair the physical damage — the city’s Jewish community, largely located in the low-lying Meyerland neighborhood, was particularly hard hit — Rabbi Stern concentrated on the survivors’ emotional and spiritual needs.

“Sometimes there are 10-hour days. Sometimes there are 16-hour days,” she told NJJN in a telephone interview.

The rabbi, who also serves as director of the Center for Pastoral Care and Counseling in Marlboro, was based the last two weeks at Red Cross headquarters in Dallas, responsible for coordinating the chaplains’ work, meeting with displaced Houstonians in emergency shelters and the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center.

Familiar duties for Stern, who received her doctor of ministry degree in pastoral counseling from Hebrew Union College in 2003 and has worked for the Red Cross since 2001.

“There are people who are completely devastated,” said Steve Morgen, associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Yeshurun, Houston’s largest Conservative congregation. “Either because it’s the first time they flooded,” and they don’t know how to handle the losses, “or because it’s the third time [in the last year] they flooded, and they wonder, ‘When is this going to end?’”

“It’s really on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “On the one hand, there’s a lot of malaise. It’s very disorienting for people.

“On the other hand,” Rabbi Morgen said, some members of the Jewish community are philosophical about the flood, calling it a good opportunity to “downsize. There’s been tremendous cooperation in the community.”

Beth Yeshurun is among three Houston synagogues that sustained “really significant” damage in the hurricane, said Rabbi Morgen, a member of the interdenominational Houston Rabbinical Association.

His synagogue, which held Shabbat services last weekend at Congregation Brith Shalom two miles away, is now looking for a venue where it can hold upcoming High Holy Days services. “There’s a lot of water in our sanctuary,” the rabbi said.

United Orthodox Synagogue, and Congregation Beth Israel (Reform), which also suffered heavy damage in the flooding, are likely to be able to hold yom tov services later this month, Rabbi Morgen said.

One major loss in the flood was the Judaica libraries of synagogues, schools, and community members. Rabbi Jill Levy, director of the Center for Jewish Living and Learning at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center, reported that she lost her entire Judaica library — as did several rabbis at congregation Beth Yeshurun and United Orthodox Synagogue. Grass-roots efforts are under way in Houston to restock the shelves.

Houston native Michael Dell, the Jewish founder and CEO of Dell Technologies, has pledged up to $36 million to rebuild Texas in the wake of the devastation caused by tropical storm Harvey, and Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry said it will send $1 million in emergency aid to Houston’s flood-hit Jewish community.

A team of volunteers from Israel’s ZAKA search-and-rescue organization is in Houston to help with the cleanup.

Baranowski said it could take years for the Jewish community to recover from Harvey. “Recovery like this — it is a disaster larger than Katrina in terms of the amount of water that fell — we’re going to have short- and long-term recovery plans, but this is probably going to take us years to get back to where we were.”

Rabbi Stern said, “Nobody had seen the extent of damage that Harvey has brought down.” 

She saw pictures of the damage, and heard stories from the people she counseled.

Based in a modest hotel, she traveled around Dallas to meet with evacuees and participate in the interfaith prayer services. The residents of the shelters are free to come to the services, and to take part or sit silently, she said. “As chaplains we don’t impose prayer on anyone. We don’t impose any single religion.”

According to the guidelines of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, proselytizing and missionizing is not allowed.

During the prayer services last Sunday — at the Convention Center, at Red Cross headquarters, and an emergency shelter, Rabbi Stern stood in a circle among the flood victims. “There was a lot of crying. You could see [the pain in] people’s faces,” she said.

Sometimes, after the services, the people approached for a hug. In those moments, she said, “I understood why we were there.”

“I’m passionate about pastoral care,” working with people “when they are at their most vulnerable, most in need of an open ear and open arms,” the New York City native said. “It is incredibly holy work.”

Rabbi Stern, a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Task Force on Drugs and Addiction, planned to return to New Jersey this Friday. “I still have responsibilities at our shul,” she said. The High Holy Days are approaching; she probably will include reflections on her experiences in Dallas in her holiday sermons. But it will probably take her months to fully process what she saw and heard there, she said.

Dallas will not be her last Red Cross posting, she said. Disasters don’t end. “I know,” she said, “there will be another need down the road.”

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