When catastrophic floods slammed Houston last week, they left a trail of devastation in their wake, and the city’s Jewish community in the southwestern neighborhood of Willow Meadows was hit hard. But within hours of the storms, Yeshiva University students began working with local community leaders to organize a relief mission to the area.
With generous support from the Orthodox Union, Neal’s Fund, Harry Ballan, Virginia Bayer and Rabbi Robert Hirt, and in partnership with NECHAMA, a group of 20 students flew to Houston this week to pitch in any way they can during the grueling clean-up process. So far, that has included everything from bleaching floors and chairs contaminated by the toxic floodwaters to tearing down rotting walls and removing affected furniture from flooded houses. The students are also helping families sanitize and pack away any of their belongings that are salvageable and meeting with local community leadership, including Rabbi Barry Gelman of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston—whose shul sustained over $1 million in damage—and Suzanne Jacobson of the Houston Federation to hear their stories and learn more about how they can help.
“They are engaged in a mission of saving lives in two ways—both literally, because if the wet Sheetrock and insulation and furniture isn’t taken out of the house quickly, it begins to grow mold, which is dangerous and a risk to people’s health, and emotionally, because this is an overwhelming, devastating event for people,” said Rabbi Gelman. “It’s a tremendous amount of stress to pack up your belongings and get them into storage. It’s very time consuming and emotionally difficult. The students are calming those emotions down, which is very important.”
Rabbi Gelman added, “I’m sure they’re going to come away from this experience very different, and that they’ll grow from it—they’re doing a great job.”
For Aryeh Laufer, a Yeshiva College sophomore from Lawrence, New York, providing emotional support was one of the most meaningful aspects of the students’ work. “We have a responsibility to others as a community when disaster happens in the world, especially the Jewish community,” he said. “Some people I’ve met here have been so inspirational, with a positive outlook that looks toward the future, which is amazing. I think a lot of what we do is smiling and being there on an emotional level.”
“You see the catastrophe in a whole new way when you’re standing in someone’s home that’s completely destroyed and you see their lives out there on the street,” said Devorah Pahmer, a junior majoring in marketing and management at the Sy Syms School of Business from Passaic, New Jersey. She recalled how one man showed her and fellow students a 70-year-old record with music his parents had recorded on it that had been completely destroyed: “You could see the sadness on his face and it was heartbreaking.”
“I think people don’t realize how devastating it is here,” said Shua Brick, a Yeshiva College junior majoring in philosophy from West Hempstead, New York. “It’s not just that things are waterlogged, it’s poisonous water—that means everyone’s clothing, antique furniture, carpets, anything that came in contact with it has to be thrown away. People are wearing masks and gloves. But it’s so simple to help out. We just need more hands on deck.”
“In general, when the University sent out this email asking for volunteers, I think it was pretty amazing that they had more than 150 people volunteering for 20 spaces in 48 hours,” added Pahmer. “That’s 150 people volunteering to fly down during their vacation time to pack up mattresses that were destroyed, tear down walls, bleach dishes—it really speaks to the uniqueness of YU.”
According to Rabbi Kenneth Brander, vice president of university and community life at YU, the students’ motivation and drive to be on the ground and helping out as soon as possible embody the values of Yeshiva University: “We teach that the study of Torah and being observant Jews requires one to act when called upon. Our students’ immediate response to engage in Houston flood relief demonstrates how special and inspiring they really are.”