Houston's Jews join Texas exodus ahead of Rita

The Houston community of approximately 50,000 pack up their bags as Rita approaches.

Barbara Raynor sat in her car Thursday morning alongside her two daughters, their stuffed animals, her family photos, her husband's baseball-card collection and the tallit he wore at his bar mitzva and watched the traffic inch along on the highway out of Houston. It went so slowly that some of those trying to escape the wrath of Hurricane Rita got out to walk their dogs on the side of the freeway, while others pushed rather than drove their vehicles to conserve gas. "We want so desperately to go out and it's frustrating," Raynor told The Jerusalem Post from her cellphone, 65 kilometers and four-and-a-half hours from her southern Houston home. She was heading to her parents' house in McAllen, Texas. She didn't know when she'd return and had learned just this month from Hurricane Katrina refugees that you should take the things you care about most with you. A member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston staff, Raynor had helped absorb much of the Jewish community from New Orleans and heard them regret taking a mere change of clothes with them, expecting to return and instead losing all their possessions. "It's very emotional... packing up your home for the unknown and deciding what to take with you," said Raynor, who called her husband, currently in Israel, on Wednesday to see what he wanted her to take. "It's just awful, and I can't imagine doing it twice in three weeks." She continued, "Now I get what happened to them. [Before] we were on the receiving end. They talked about what happened to them, but you don't really understand it until you go through it yourself." Most of the New Orleans Jews are also relocating out of Houston. "This is very traumatic for them. Many of them have lost everything," said Raynor, describing the work the Houston community had done to find them new homes, schools and even jobs. "Many of them find themselves in the identical situation." "In the blink of an eye we've gone from being the comforting community, that embraced tens of thousands of homeless evacuees, to being the homeless evacuees at least for the weekend," said Barry Gelman, rabbi of United Orthodox Synagogue in southern Houston. He will be spending Shabbat in Dallas with the rabbi of Congregation Shaare Tefila. "It's jarring that within a few days you go from being in a humble way the heroic community that stepped up and opened its arms and wallets and hearts, and now we may well be in the same situation. It's certainly a disturbing situation to be in." He said that the distress was eased by the knowledge that Jewish communities throughout Texas and, indeed, the rest of the US were waiting to receive them. The Houston community of approximately 50,000 had worked together to provide shelter, clothing, meals, counseling and just about everything else to the 5,000 New Orleans Jews who arrived in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Now, Raynor said, the federation was working to make sure Houstonians received the same help. The Jewish community mostly lives in the southern part of the city, which is vulnerable to flooding from the bayou running through that part of town. Raynor said the vast majority of the Jews would evacuate, but some who were elderly, out of gas, or frightened by the gridlock might stay. The Foreign Ministry also ordered the temporary evacuation of its consulate in Houston on Thursday. "It's comforting to know that we have both numerous formal welfare organizations and a network of people who deeply care and take care of each other," Gelman said. "That's why we know that whatever happens, we'll ultimately all be okay." As the rabbi spoke, his four children could be heard talking in the background. Their car ride was 10 hours and counting. Gelman, who set out from Houston at midnight Wednesday, estimated it would take 12 hours to get to Dallas, a trip that is usually four to six hours long. Those who left Thursday morning were facing drive times of 24 hours to go the same distance. "It's a very tight-knit community in Houston," Gelman noted. "We'll be there to hold each other up. Hopefully we won't have to."
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