DISASTER AREA RELIEF SERVICE TRIPS
As a result of the massive devastation of parts of the United States and the territories of U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico from recent hurricanes, J-Teen Leadership, through a generous grant from UJA-Federation's Time for Good volunteer initiative, was chosen to lead immersive service trips to Houston and other storm affected areas for 2017-2018.
Trips were led on the following dates:
December 8th-11th, 2017 (Teens Only)
February 16th-19th, 2018 (Presidents Day Weekend)
March 2nd-5th, 2018 (8th and 9th graders with a parent)
April 20th-23rd, 2018 (Teens Only)
The Houston Flood and the Arc of Community
Hol Ha'Moed Sukkot scoping trip reflection by Executive Director, Guy Felixbrodt
“My husband, he was chest high in water, and almost got taken away by the current of the flood water, as he tried crossing the street to the neighbor’s house, waiting to be rescued!” That’s what one woman recalled as we met her in her house, which was gutted in its entirety, in every space that was below 4 feet high.
“The water was everywhere, 6 feet high, at least according to the water marks. The benches by the ark got yanked out and moved by the sanctuary’s glass doors entrance, which by some miracle, didn’t shatter,” according to the executive director of OUS, the Orthodox synagogue that we visited.
I left NY on Tuesday morning, during Hol Ha’Moed Sukkot, with the chair of our parent executive board at J-Teen Leadership. We were joined by a staff person from UJA-Federation of NY, and her lay leader. This was a 30 hours scoping trip in preparation for a series of DARST- Disaster Area Relief Service Trips to Houston and possibly other natural disaster stricken areas, which we are planning for teens and adults.
“The water wasn’t so high in my house, but as soon as I opened the door, waves of water moved in my house after the rescue boats zoomed by,” one woman told us. I’ve seen waves around me while serving in the Israeli Navy, but never inside of a house. The devastation occurred sporadically across Houston, the 4th largest city in America, but so painfully random. Certain houses were under 8 feet of water, while other homes nearby remained untouched. Some houses flooded for the third time in two and a half years, while others were never damaged. I had seen the destruction on the news, but experiencing it firsthand on the ground was simply overwhelming. This was especially true about the smell, which is indescribable through pictures and videos. Anything below ground level that was flooded- basements, car garages, ditches; smelled like mildew. There was such a strong stench in the air.
Thousands of people are still displaced, and some who had hotel accommodations through FEMA have had to return to their homes, mold and all. They have no place to go, or any other choice.
Luckily for the Jewish community, help poured in from everywhere. UJA-Federation of NY sent funds and professional staff to advise, based on their past experiences post- Hurricane Sandy. JFNA sent staff, including I.T. specialists, to handle the fortunate problem of an influx of donations that came from all over the nation. The local community came together, offering alternate sites for Jewish preschools and other educational programs that became homeless overnight. No denomination, no differences, no silos, only Ahavat Achim- brotherly love. This is an amazingly strong and connected community rallying for its members; and helping thousands of non-Jews alike.
Just as the local head of the Nechama repair organization told us: “We are here to help people out with their homes, and we don’t care if they’re Jewish or not, just like the flood water didn’t care either.” Rich and poor alike, Jews and non-Jews, young and elderly, this flood hit everyone.
The tremendous damage is extensive, and will take months and years to resolve, including raising homes and houses of worship up to 10 feet higher, to prevent the next flood from ravaging them all over again.
Our trip taught us so much about the local needs, and how we can better prepare for future relief effort missions. This flood was unprecedented, making streets into rivers, and neighborhoods into lakes. But the power of the Jewish community has brought everybody together, making them feel more secure and blessed, and bringing the ark of hope back into people’s lives. This holiday of Sukkot has proved yet again, so painfully so, how something perceived as permanent, like a house, can be so easily destroyed, yet how the intangible power of community can be eternal and indeed divine.
We shall return to Houston with the help of a generous grant from UJA-Federation of NY with its Time for Good initiative, ready to get our hands dirty, from a deep heartfelt desire to help our fellow members of the tribe and their neighbors in this desperate time of great need!
Houston Trip Reflection
by Jen Sokol, J-Teen Leadership Parent Advisory Board Member
It was heartbreaking to witness the damage up close to many of the synagogues and the JCC in the areas near Meyerland (a heavily populated Jewish neighborhood/hub in Houston). Sanctuaries, kitchens, preschools, and a day school were heavily damaged; siddurim, as well as library and preschool books, were destroyed. Classrooms, offices and gyms were wrecked; students were displaced; programs were shut down or interrupted. The JCC suffered from flooding up to 10 feet in its lower level, where many key communal programs were housed. Electricity and plumbing were totaled in these areas of the JCC, and in some of the synagogues, in particular, UOS, a local modern Orthodox shul. Beth Yeshurun, a large Conservative synagogue in the area housing a day school and multiple minyanim, was severely affected as well. We met staff whose own homes were flooded, and who were staying in temporary housing without any clear idea of when they’d be returning home. And, per the executive director of the JCC, neighborhood streets in the area are eerily dark and desolate at night, since so many have fled from their homes, heading elsewhere.
It was impossible to avoid the moldy stench in most of the buildings and homes we visited, and devastating to see the debris piles lining the streets in front of homes. Some residents with whom we spoke were facing their second or third time being flooded. Given the flat topography, low elevations, and the way in which the Bayou is situated in the area, flooding is an immense concern that extends beyond the devastation from Harvey, and one that is causing many residents to consider raising their homes and buildings (if they haven’t already) - or else relocating or rebuilding from scratch. Imagine the costs!
The good news is that the Jewish community down there proves to be remarkably tight-knit, resilient and resourceful. We were quite surprised by how much has been done already, and how the members of this community have come together to support one another - thoughtfully relocating programming and services to other area shuls, homes, and institutions; round-the-clock commitment to moving forward; and strong communication and action throughout. In addition, those whom we met expressed tremendous gratitude for the national efforts of JFNA and the regional federations that have offered support to Houston (including UJA-Federation of NY). Many affected in the Jewish community there seem to be the somewhat “lucky” ones (relatively speaking), with means and a support system upon which they can rely. Those whom we met who were affected had the resources to get their homes mucked, gutted and remediated quickly. Thus, we witnessed real progress on the ground.
Through our time debriefing with Nechama relief team members, and our visit with them to a modest Houston neighborhood, we were exposed to a very different scenario. According to one Nechama contact, the poorest residents affected in Houston are among those whose homes have not yet been touched, let alone remediated. This includes residents in the northeastern Houston area. Many of these people did not have the resources to mobilize quickly and address their flooded houses, and have fled from their homes. Some are staying with friends, family, and in the case of those with the greatest damage, in hotels funded through FEMA. Yet, as in the case of the woman whose home we visited with Nechama during gutting, the FEMA housing assistance is temporary. So some of these families are returning to, and actually living in, moldy (and often water-laden) homes. Some Houston areas, including Bear Creek, were heavily flooded when the reservoir was intentionally was released. Absolutely tragic.
The mucking and gutting was, literally, gut-wrenching to see. Entire walls and floors were removed, and content from the home was dumped on the front lawn, for Houston city employees to pick up. Per our Nechama contacts, homes are being stripped bare down to the studs, to facilitate mold remediation. And the Nechama representatives were not able to forecast when they can move towards the rebuilding phase. The immediate needs are still so extensive and unknown.
It became increasingly evident during the trip that these people are undergoing significant trauma and psychological stress. Nechama team members themselves were choked up when describing what they were witnessing. The Jewish lay leaders we met expressed how devastated they were by the constant sight of debris and damage. And the woman we met during the gutting of her home by Nechama volunteers, hugged, blessed and thanked us for being there, with desperate tears in her eyes.
When visiting the impressive Houston Food Bank, we learned that it is the largest in the country, serving over 800,000 people through a tremendous network of local food pantries and partners. There seems to be great opportunity for our teens to volunteer there and organize collections and drives to help the people of Houston (especially those without the means to help themselves). In addition, we learned through our meetings with Jewish teen professionals (BBYO and JCC staff) that there is a far-reaching “Gift of Chanukah” collection for Jewish families who can’t afford gifts in the area, and that UJA/J-Teen could potentially support this effort through partnership. This year’s needs are anticipated to be greater than ever. This could be a very impactful and meaningful initiative in which our teens could partake.
I am VERY excited for the teens of J-Teen to get down there, roll up their sleeves, and get “down and dirty;" helping in whatever way they can - both through physical labor; warm, compassionate support; and through any material means they can organize. It seems that communication will be key - we will need those on the ground in Houston to continue to inform and update us about the ongoing needs, as they continue to evolve. The Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders down there were an excellent resource, as were the team members of Nechama. Nechama should be on the ground though late December, and we were happy to learn that they have volunteers registered to help as young as fourteen years old (accompanied by adults in the ratio of at least 3:1). J-Teen's relationship with SBP (another volunteer relief organization that was on the ground in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina) should prove to be equally valuable, once they are set up in Houston. In addition to All Hands' presence down there, our contacts at Nechama articulated that they were working closely with AmeriCorps as well.