Jewish community rallies to evacuate vulnerable as storms ravage Houston

Houses are flooded and kosher food in short supply as Hurricane Harvey continues to batter Texas


Nearly three quarters of Houston’s 50,000-strong Jewish community has been affected by Hurricane Harvey as the tropical cyclone continues to devastate wide areas of Texas.

The natural disaster has paralysed America’s fourth most populous city and killed at least 18 people. Jewish families have not been immune, with many forced to flee their homes, according to the local Jewish Family Service (JFS).

More rain than would be expected over six months fell on Houston over three days, with more to come. Hundreds of thousands of residents have been left without power, water and access to food. Kosher food is in short supply as many retail outlets have been closed due to flooding and roads are inaccessible for deliveries.

A statement released by the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston said: “While we do not yet know the full extent of the damage, we know that most of our Jewish institutions have flooded. We know that 71 per cent of our Jewish population lives in areas that have seen massive flooding and Jews have been displaced from their homes with flooding ranging from six inches to ten feet. 

“We know that close to 12,000 elderly members in our community live in areas impacted by flooding. And, we know that we will need help to recover. At this time, we are unsure when the weather will clear, but we are sure that we must begin acting immediately.”

There are no reported fatalities among the Jewish community as yet.

The Jewish Federations of North America partnered with the Houston Federation to set up the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.

According to a recent poll by the city’s Jewish Herald-Voice newspaper, Houston’s Jewish community numbers just over 50,000. More than a quarter are "seniors", including 5,900 aged 75 or over.

The newspaper’s associate editor Michael Duke told the JC that much of the community centres on two areas – Meyerland and Willow Meadows – both of which have been badly affected.

“These two areas have seen widespread devastation," Mr Duke said. "If you have a single storey home in either of these areas, most likely you will have taken in at least a foot of water. Some have taken in as much as five." 

Among those affected was teenager Molly Goldstein and her mother Amy who were helped by Vincent Wedelich, a member of the Hebrew Order of David, which is making door-to-door rescues. 

“It hasn't stopped raining for some 36 hours and counting right now," Mr Duke said on Tuesday. "I suspect it will be days until we have a clearer, more comprehensive picture of what our challenges will be."  

Mr Duke said that staff of the newspaper, which has never missed an issue in 109 years of operation and intends to go to print this week despite the devastation, have been regularly updating readers online. “I haven’t had much sleep over the last three days,” he said, adding that his own home was largely dry, despite leaking windows and a flooded garage. “On the second night someone was stranded in our neighbourhood. I tried to do a vehicle rescue and my poor Volvo is now submerged.”

Others have suffered worse. He said: “In 2015, during the Memorial Day flood, we had two community members – Shirley and Jack Alter – who were trapped on a front porch of a house. They were picked up but the boat capsized and they drowned. This week their son’s house flooded. Can you imagine the anxiety the family feels?”

Mr Duke said that the various strands of the Jewish community held a conference call on Tuesday to adopt a coordinated approach. They have therefore arranged to hold a number of joint kosher dinners for those in the community who are affected. He added that a group of people in New York are organising a consignment of up to 12 lorries filled with supplies, though he doesn't know when that will arrive.

Two Jewish care homes were flooded with water over the weekend. Mr Duke said: “The staff were heroic as the power was out, so they had to lift people in wheelchairs up two flights of stairs.”

Malcolm Slatko, CEO of Seven Acres Jewish Senior Care Services, said: “Everyone is high and dry...We’re OK and our emergency team reacted beautifully and correctly.”

Food is becoming a growing concern. Rabbi Yossi Zaklikofsky, a Chabad emissary, said: “Even for those who were fortunate not to lose electricity, like us, it’s a matter of days until we have no milk and other basics. “And when the stores do reopen, it is open question as to what they’ll actually have that’s salvageable.”

The city has several Jewish schools and 36 synagogues, ranging from Reform to Haredi. Houston is home to several precious Torah scrolls, which were recovered from Prague after the Holocaust. These, as well as hundreds of others, were later distributed around the world on permanent loan from the London-based Memorial Scrolls Trust. 

Jeffrey Ohrenstein, chairman of the trust, told the JC: “The most important thing is people’s lives and once we know everyone is safe we will then look for those scrolls which are survivors of the Shoah. Obviously we are concerned, but I’m sure the communities will be doing their best to look after them.”

The Texas branch of Camp Young Judea, which runs summer camps for Jewish children, has opened its doors to those affected. A statement said: “Camp will provide temporary housing and meals to as many of our extended camper families, alumni, supporters and other friends (including certain pets) as we can.”

Meawhile, a team of relief workers is en route to Houston from Israel. A statement on IsraAID’s website reads: “Drawing on close to two decades of humanitarian responses in 41 countries, including in 11 US States dating back to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, IsraAID will deploy a team to implement a multi-focused, two-stage response in Texas, focused on (1) emergency relief and psychosocial trauma support, and (2) debris removal.”

Ziggy Gruber runs two delicatessens in the city and was the subject of 2014 documentary, Deli Man. Fortunately Mr Gruber’s eateries, which serve everything from chicken soup to kishkes, were not flooded, but both were closed for several days.  

One branch of Kenny & Ziggy’s reopened on Tuesday. Mr Gruber, who trained as a chef in the UK and also holds British citizenship, said: “The Jewish community is devastated and will be wanting to come in for some yiddisher comfort food, so we need to stock up and prepare for it.”

Once the rain subsides, Mr Gruber hopes to visit the affected retirement homes. 

“I definitely want to see if we can go help feed them when we can get to them. A lot of them are Holocaust survivors, so it’s important we look after them.” 

Mr Gruber added: “I’ve lived in the UK, in Los Angeles and I was born and raised in New York City, but the best Jewish community I’ve ever experienced is here in Houston. Everyone here is helping each other and we will pull together and rebuild everything.”

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