Recovering, But ‘Really Scared’
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Recovering, But ‘Really Scared’

Sustaining heavy damage in May flooding, Houston’s Jewish community unscathed in last week’s tropical storm.

The Jewish community of Houston, which was at the center of a downpour that flooded a large part of the city in late May, escaped further damage during a tropical storm that brought fears of a stalled rebuilding-and-repair effort last week. But predictions of further flooding upset many already nervous residents, who were taking part in the renovation of their homes and community institutions, according to communal leaders.

Tropical Storm Bill, which largely bypassed the greater Houston area before heading northeast, unnerved members of the city’s Jewish community who had lost many possessions — and in some cases, use of all or part of their homes — in the earlier Memorial Day weekend flooding, the leaders said.

“People were really scared,” said Lee Wunsch, CEO of Houston’s Jewish Federation.

In the wake of the May flooding, “people are very anxious,” said Rachel Davis, chief development officer of the city’s Jewish Family Service, which is responsible for case management on a non-sectarian basis of Houstonians in need of housing, food, furniture, money for day-to-day expenses, and, exacerbated by last week’s weather reports, personal counseling.

The homes of an estimated 500 Jewish Houstonians were damaged in May; some residents were forced to seek temporary housing with friends or relatives, or in hotels or rented apartments, Wunsch said.

Repairs and fundraising efforts are continuing at the Jewish institutions that sustained the greatest damage in the May flooding, caused by overflowing bayous Wunsch said. They are United Orthodox Synagogues, the city’s largest Orthodox congregation; the Meyerland Minyan, a smaller Orthodox synagogue; Congregation Beth Israel, which is Reform; and the teen satellite building of Houston’s Jewish Community Center.

The community’s entire 18-to-24-month repair effort will total about $3.5 million, Wunsch said, adding that the Federation has begun a local and national fundraising campaign (houston.secure-fedweb.jewishfederations.org/page/contribute/houston-flood-relief-fund). So far, the effort, aided by the Orthodox Union (ou.org/giving/houston-relief-fund) has brought in about a half-million dollars, he said.

Wunsch offered a reason for the difficulty fundraising to help repair damage from the May flooding: “This event does not have a name,” he said. The May downpour happened before the June 1 start of the hurricane season, depriving the storm of the panache of a Katrina or Ike, Wunsch said. Among the contributors to the Federation’s relief fund was the Jewish Federation of Ocean County, in New Jersey. The Lakewood-based agency sent the Houston Federation “what they might consider a smallish amount of money, but what we, as a much smaller Federation, consider a largeish amount!” the Federation’s executive director, Naomi Levecchia, said in an email message.

“We received generous support from other Jewish Federations, as well as the Jewish Federations of North America following Hurricane Sandy” three years ago, Levecchia said. We … continue to award funds to those in Ocean County, N.J. who remain affected by the devastation here. Nonetheless, when the Jewish Federations of North America sent an email to all Federations that the Houston Jewish community was hit very hard by the flooding … the Jewish Federation of Ocean County felt strongly that since we were fortunate enough to receive wide support for our troubles here, we were willing to demonstrate our gratitude.”

Organizations that have participated in the Houston Jewish community’s cleanup and recovery effort include Chabad, NCSY, Yeshiva University, Israel-based IsraAID, Minnestoa-based Nechama, and Austin’s JFS.

Local Jewish summer camps began this year’s programs this week on the sites of Jewish institutions undamaged by the May flooding.

“Though Houston has been at the epicenter of many natural disasters over the years, the 2015 Memorial Day Flood will go down in history as one of the most destructive, particularly for the Jewish community,” a report released by the Federation last week stated.

United Orthodox, the Jewish institution that sustained the most damage in May — including hundreds of destroyed seats in the main sanctuary — is holding its worship services, classes and social programs in the social hall, located in a wing of the building built on higher ground than the rest of the structure. The congregation will decide within the next month whether to renovate or build a new synagogue on the site, Max Reichenthal, the congregation’s president, said. He estimated the damage to the building as “something north of $1 million.”

Members of the congregation, like all Houstonians, will continue to keep an eye on the sky this year’s hurricane season ends on Nov. 30, Reichenthal said. “We’re always watching the weather reports,” he said.

steve@jewishweek.org

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