Sunday, September 4th, 4:26 p.m., Sackett Lake, NY
My caller ID says it’s Rabbi Yossel Kranz, from Richmond, Virginia. “We’re going to Houston tomorrow — you’re coming right?”
By “we’re going,” he means himself along with 49 other Chabad rabbis and of course I was going.
Monday, September 5th, 11 p.m., Aishel House Houston, TX
The rabbis begin to arrive. Omaha, St. Paul, Long Island, Los Angeles.
“We always have hot soup.”
Rabbi Lazer Lazaroff is talking to Rabbi Mendy Rubenfeld from California.
Lazaroff is our gracious host and together with his wife Rochel, is the Director of the Aishel House, built to accommodate families who have loved ones at the hospitals nearby. They’ve done an inspiring job in making this $10 million dollar hospitality center seem like a 4-star hotel. Only this is a hotel that wishes it had no clients.
Lazaroff is telling Rubenfeld that aside from the regular meals they provide, when visiting families come back from the hospital during off hours, they always make sure to have hot soup for them.
As the rabbis continue to arrive from Little Rock, Louisville, Denver and St. Louis, it’s more of the same: Hugs, admiration for the facility we are staying at, and grabbing a bite in the dining room.
They also talk shop.
“I must figure out a way to call 2,000 people during the week leading up to Rosh Hashana.”
Rabbi Yossi Denburg is talking to a few of his colleagues about the upcoming high holidays. When I suggest to him that he use some kind of automated system to reach his community in Ft. Lauderdale, he shakes his head. “These are my friends. I need to speak to each one.”
Wednesday, September 6th, 8 p.m., Aishel House, Houston
“We must maximize our time to make the biggest impact for the people of Houston.”
We are listening to Rabbi Yossi Lipsker from the North Shore of Massachusetts. Along with his friend, philanthropist Nate Dalton, they founded One Mitzvah, which has given us this opportunity to be there for Houstonians.
It’s roll up your sleeves time.
“We will divide into groups of three or four. Please have your team leader come forward and I will brief you on your task list.”
Volunteering requires excellent organizational skills. Thankfully we have Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff and Rabbi Zally Lazarus, who as a result of living through a prior natural disaster, got certified with NIMS the National Incident Management System.
Chabad Houston setup an emergency response center that has fielded thousands of calls, gone on dozens of rescue missions, deployed thousands of volunteers and distributed hundreds of pallets of food.
Rabbi Zally is the volunteer dispatcher. He’s intimately familiar with what areas need the most help. My team is assigned to a neighborhood called Meyerland, hit particularly hard. We are given names and addresses of people who have called for help.
In case you missed it, this is the team that did the rescuing detailed in this viral text message from the first days of Harvey:
- woman from houston sends a message to her daughter-in-law in london that she is stuck, limited food, water is rising and no response from the rescue hotlines.
- daughter-in-law contacts a local london chabad
- chabad director contacts her brother in LA
- brother in LA posts on our whatsapp chat details including address and phone # (8:28am)
- rabbi in Houston posts that his wife spoke with her (8:39am)
- rabbi in Houston posts that she has been picked up (10:02am)
After being briefed by Captain Joshua Verdan of the Houston Fire Department, we are each given an emergency kit with masks, gloves, bags and boxes.
“אינו דומה שמיעה לראיה — one can’t compare hearing to seeing”
Today, we don’t only read about a natural disaster. We watch clips of people using boats to rescue neighbors, see cars float down the street and a guy catching a fish swimming in his kitchen. Perhaps seeing these types of videos give us a false sense of “seeing” as if we can really understand the devastation.
When we pull into the Meyerland neighborhood I realize that I was not prepared for what I was seeing. People’s entire lives, everything that they have ever had, is piled up in the front yard. Yes, I saw the picture online too but I never met the homeowner. I never heard the story about the family’s loss of their most treasured heirlooms some going back to the 1700s. Or how they saved every last penny to buy their home that will now need to be torn down.
“Losing Agnes was devastating.”
We are at the home of Michelle Levy Poche helping with whatever we can, carrying heavy pieces to the garbage and clearing out her garage. Like everyone else on the block, most of her earthly possessions are stacked in a pile in front of her home. Aside from all the physical damage, she was dealing with the emotional pain of losing Agnes Stanley, an elderly neighbor who she tried to rescue but unfortunately wasn’t able to. She says she will never forget what she saw.
Our team spent a few hours in this neighborhood doing what I’d call shlepping and listening. Helping people with the physical and the spiritual. If we had a camera with every team, there would be dozens of pictures of rabbis in driveways and homes lending an ear and giving a hug; pictures of shlepping heavy furniture, helping rip out drywall, sorting through documents and preserving what could be salvaged.
Wednesday, September 6th, 2 p.m. Red Cross Emergency Response Center, Houston
“We should have enough for about 300 hot meals”
Roger Heider, Red Cross volunteer from Toledo, Ohio, is showing me the ropes of Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) 1230 . We are on our way to a poor neighborhood hit particularly hard. When we arrive, the cars are already waiting. We park and open the service window. Seeing moms with little kids looking hungry and waiting for food makes you want to cry. That is not my job now and not what they need. What they need is a hot meal.
Along with Roger’s friend Larry Coats, we are tweaking our assembly line. The kids are hungry. People are waiting. Roger will put in the rice and vegetables. I’ll add the chicken and help Larry assemble the “goodie bags” potato chips, fruit cup, water, cookies and utensils.
The feeling of being able to hand hot meals to a family of five is indescribable.
“How many can I get you?”
I had started the afternoon by asking people “How many dinners do you need?” I tweaked it. How many can I get you is a more honorable way to ask.
“Are you Jewish?”
Fifteen-year-old Emanuel Sanchez hasn’t seen many Jews with Kipas but he knows enough to ask. It was now close to 8 p.m., the line had gotten shorter as had our food supply.
In answer to his question, I said “Yes and these are my friends Larry, he’s Baptist, and Roger, he’s Catholic, and we all came here from different parts of the country to make sure you know you aren’t alone.”
“Ah man, that’s so cool” he said.
I don’t know what’s included in “Ah man, that’s so cool” but I hope it included the recognition that we are all created in G-d’s image and that one mitzvah makes a real difference.
Thursday, September 7th, 1:28 p.m., Missouri City, Houston
“I now understand what it means that the Jewish people are a light unto the nations”
We are at the Chabad Harvey Relief Center helping people find what they need and talking to Jesse the Nigerian security guard. He can’t believe the outpouring of love and the enthusiasm of the volunteers that he has witnessed.
Link to the video: Jesse at Nigerian Security Guard at Chabad Houston Emergency Relief Center
“We gotta catch an earlier flight”
Irma is leaving destruction in her wake and headed for Florida. Rabbi Pinny Andrusier and three of his colleagues want to stay longer but they must leave now. They serve the communities of South Florida.
Thursday, September 7th, 2:28 p.m., Missouri City, Houston
On the way to the airport we realize we still have seven Target gift cards and seventeen minutes. We pull into an apartment complex that has a massive bright orange dumpster in front, piled high with furniture.
The complex is a veritable ghost town. We seek but we don’t find. With about six minutes left, we are getting ready to head back to the car when we see an open door. Inside the apartment sits a 97-year-old woman. Like thousands of others, her apartment has been destroyed. Her son Arkady and daughter-in-law Nina, recent immigrants from Uzbekistan, have come to help her move out.
In the few minutes that we have left we talk with them about their loss and offer whatever support we can. We give them the gift cards and are about to leave when Arkady tells us that they are Jewish. I ask him if he has ever had a bar mitzvah, he says no. Three minutes later, in that destroyed Houston apartment, Arkady was bar mitzvahed.
Thursday, September 7th, 4:28 p.m., IAH International Airport
In Houston I saw the Divine up close. In angels like my new friends Roger and Larry, in the sheer power of nature, in the force of good that is the Chabad network, and in the eyes of people who refuse to give up hope.
#houstonstrong #floridastrong #1mitzvah