Workers clean the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston on Sunday as part of restoration efforts by Jewish volunteers after Hurricane Harvey.
(photo credit: ZAKA)
Students from colleges across the United States traveled to Houston in a convoy of 50 trucks and cars on Sunday to provide assistance to victims of Hurricane Harvey, joining a Chabad on Campus-led mission, which has rescued and provided assistance to thousands of flood victims.
The 150 students – from Tulane University, the University of Colorado, Texas State University, the University of Texas, Louisiana State University and Texas A&M – joined Chabad of Rice University in Houston, which has been spearheading Chabad on Campus hurricane-relief efforts for the past week.
More than a week ago, Chabad of Rice directors Rabbi Shmuli and Nechama Slonim, along with several student volunteers, started cooking meals for and assisting those affected by the hurricane. By last Thursday, approximately 200 students from Rice University had volunteered.
The student-volunteers spent the day in Houston cooking and distributing meals. They also worked in teams to help clean and salvage homes that were severely damaged by the storm.
Ethan Robinson, a freshman from the University of Texas, was among the 60-student contingent led by Chabad of UT director Rabbi Zev Johnson.
“We saw the pictures of the devastation in the news and we thought it was essential to come. What better way to spend our time than to come down here and help?” said Ethan.
Tennessee native Ben Davis remembered the devastation wrought in 2010, when Tennessee was hit with a 1,000-year flood. So when his Chabad Rabbi at the University of Colorado asked him if he could help with the relief efforts in Houston, Davis was immediately on board.
Davis recruited a friend who owns a moving truck business as Rabbi Yisroel Wilhelm arranged the donation of 2,000 pounds (900 kg.) of much-needed supplies. They were joined by a dozen more CU students who made the 16-hour drive to Houston to deliver the supplies to victims of Hurricane Harvey.
At the end of a hard day of work, Chabad of Rice hosted the volunteers for dinner, during which a student from each school addressed their peers.
Alex Rovner, a junior at Rice University, spoke about how much it meant to him that such a large group of students had traveled in from so far to help.
“Last week, I was in my dorm room with the news on watching the flooding. And it was incredibly frustrating just to sit there and not be able to do anything about it. Five days later to see you all here helping Houston is just incredible.”
Shmuli Slonim spoke about the “flood of kindness” that poured into Houston after the storm. He urged the students to keep paying it forward and do good deeds for others during times of disaster as well as under normal circumstances.
“This is the point of Chabad, to help your friend, your neighbor, your family,” summed up Katy Resnick from A&M. “We’re all just so blessed and happy to help you guys.”
Meanwhile, an eight-member team of volunteers from Israel’s ZAKA search and rescue organization was on the ground in Houston, helping both the Jewish and Christian communities in the area. Another four ZAKA volunteers were scheduled to join the delegation in the coming days.
After an initial briefing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was overseeing the recovery efforts, and with the Orthodox Union, which was coordinating the volunteers within the Jewish community in Houston, the ZAKA team began work.
“As a humanitarian organization, we help all those in need, regardless of religion, race or gender,” said ZAKA chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav.
“Today, our team contacted Pastor Becky Keenan from the Gulf Meadows Church, and we are working with the Christian community in the area as well. It was particularly meaningful for Pastor Keenan that a team from the Holy Land has come to offer help.”
“The ZAKA volunteers received orders to assist mainly in the humanitarian area,” explained ZAKA special operations commander Haim Weingarten. “At the moment, there is no concern about more missing people, but nonetheless, abandoned houses are still being searched and it is possible that bodies will be found.”
The ZAKA volunteers have been working in the badly-damaged synagogue in coordination with Rabbi Barry Gelman of the United Orthodox Synagogues in Houston, clearing debris and removing mold. In addition, they are working in the community, helping make homes habitable for their residents, as well as assisting with the delivery of kosher food, after supplies began to run low.
Rabbi Daniel Masri of the Sephardi Beth Rambam community was also working with and assisting the ZAKA team.