Walking into the building of the United Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) of Houston, I welled up with tears, shocked by the devastation. Waters from Hurricane Harvey had reached six feet high, destroying the synagogue’s large sanctuary. Waterlogged chairs had already been removed; the mechitza partition separating men and women during prayer was broken in pieces; the ark, untouched by the waters as it was built higher off the ground, stood like a lonely forsaken figure. Thankfully, the synagogue’s leadership had removed the Torah scrolls when weather predictions warned of the upcoming storm.
Houston today speaks to the truth of the rabbinic declaration — eino domeh shmi’a l’re’iya, hearing of an event, even watching it unfold on TV, does not compare to seeing it up close and in person.
Block after block around the synagogue, as far as the eye could see, there were piles in front of homes. Piles of wood, rolled up rugs, picture frames, empty chests of drawers, broken pieces of furniture were strewn everywhere. The waters, sometimes filled with toxic waste, had soaked whatever they touched, making the air inside the ruined homes difficult to breathe. Many people who were removing furniture and sheet-rock from inside wore masks with filters as they went about cleaning up and salvaging whatever they could.
And in the eye of the storm’s aftermath was UOS’s Rabbi Barry Gelman, who, together with his wife Gabi, were enduring a flooding for the third time in just a few years. Moving to a home on a higher plane after a prior hurricane, they felt confident that heavy rains would not wreak havoc again. It wasn’t to be. Their new home is uninhabitable — they have to relocate until it can be rebuilt.
Rav Barry, one of the great rabbis in America today, carries a great burden. Together with Gabi, they navigate their personal loss and on top of that serve as a shoulder to cry on — being there for their congregation and community, offering help, hope and reassurance that in time all will be well.
All will be well — in part because volunteers had come, even as they must continue to come from everywhere to help. Rabbis with their congregants were there from Montreal, Florida, Maryland, Washington, DC, Atlanta, GA — students, too, had come from Yeshiva University and elsewhere. Most converged at the Robert M. Beren Academy (RMBA), from which thousands of meals were being served and from where volunteers were directed to nearby homes to help families in need.
In a moving moment, Rabbi Adam Starr of the Young Israel of Toco Hills in Atlanta, shared his experience of visiting a Muslim family. Sitting with them, he offered spiritual comfort, and also along with his congregants did the physical work of heavy lifting and cleaning. The waters of Harvey didn’t discriminate between faiths and nationalities — everyone in its path was affected.
The scene in the sanctuary of Beth Yeshurun, a mammoth conservative synagogue, was also overwhelming. Hundreds of seats were flipped over on their sides; papers were stacked in small bundles in another area in the hopes that they would dry out and somehow be recovered.
As I stood in the sanctuary, I found it hard to breathe. Since suffering a heart attack many years ago, I’m especially sensitive to air which is less pure. Rabbi Steven Morgen of Beth Yeshurun who was showing me around, accompanied me outside where the breeze offered relief. It brought home on a very personal level what many in the area were experiencing, with one major difference. I would be leaving town the next day. They would remain.
As frightening as Houston was, I left uplifted. A pathway to feeling God’s presence is experiencing a sense of communal unity. In the Shema we declare, “God is One.” When people of diverse backgrounds help one another, we feel a spark of the Divine. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote about the oneness of God, “God means: Togetherness of all beings in holy otherness.”
When we declare this Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, “Who shall live and who shall die,” and then call out “Who by water,” I’ll be thinking of Police Officer Steve Perez and 31-year-old Alonso Guillen among others. Both these men gave their lives in Houston trying to save others in the whirlwind waters of Harvey.
And as Irma charges towards the Florida coast, we ought to hope that all of humankind will rise above our religious and political differences, recognizing that when challenged, we can, in Robert Browning’s words, “exceed our grasp.” Indeed, the Hebrew word for crisis, mashber, is also the word for a birthing stool, a place of new beginnings. As the late Leonard Cohen wrote, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
That’s what’s happening in Houston today — light is coming in. As King Solomon once wrote, mayim rabim lo yuchlu le’chabot et ha’ahavah — floods cannot drown love.