Remembering other people's problems

The intensity of our own news removes me from events in the world, even when friends are involved, I must admit

TEXAS ARMY National Guard soldiers move through flooded Houston streets as floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey rise, on August 28, 2017 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
TEXAS ARMY National Guard soldiers move through flooded Houston streets as floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey rise, on August 28, 2017
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Marcie and David Rosen are standing in their living room as the water rises from their ankles to their calves. Longtime Houstonians, they know their walls and floors are already gone – mold will take hold fast. As the water rises, they know they’ll soon have to retreat to the upstairs. They frantically begin moving anything portable to the second floor.
They’ve lived in this house for 22 years, ever since David was appointed rabbi of one of the largest synagogues in the world. It’s the first time their own home has been flooded.
The phone rings. The president of the synagogue. It seems that 400 of the 2,000 families have been flooded, too. And so has the synagogue. What should they do? the president asks the rabbi standing in water.
I DIDN’T understand the extent of the trauma of the flooding in Houston last August until I had dinner recently with the Rosens, who brought a synagogue group to Israel and celebrated their son’s wedding in Jerusalem.
As they recounted the events of Hurricane Harvey, which continue to impact the lives of their community, I felt increasingly uncomfortable and guilty. Where was I when this happened? I should have kept more in touch, expressed empathy and recognized the suffering at the very least. I could have sent kosher products – there was a shortage – via Amazon or from Israel. I know how much I appreciate any expression of concern when we are going through troubles in Israel.
That’s how I first met the Rosens. They came time and time again during the intifada, sometimes leading a group and sometimes alone. They always rented an apartment in Jerusalem and toured the country as if no threat existed.
What was I thinking about last August when this happened in Houston? I have to look back at the news. We were just coming off a period of riots about magnometers to check for concealed weapons in the Old City after the murder of two Border Police officers. Then, toward the end of August, as Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, the IDF found weapons caches in the West Bank. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Our prime minister accused Iran of building missile production sites in Syria. Easier to remember, TV host Conan O’Brien was here, touring and loving Israel.
The intensity of our own news removes me from events in the world, even when friends are involved, I have to admit. Although they never implied it, I wasn’t there for my Houston friends.
For instance, I didn’t realize the significance of Harvey being the first hurricane in more than a decade “to make landfall.” That means that the tropical storm relocated to land and stayed there for four days, during which 1,539 mm. fell on Houston. That’s 14 mega-stadiums worth, or enough water to run Niagara Falls for 14 days. More or less a trillion gallons on their heads.
Citizens were warned to shut off their electricity. The rabbi, who retired recently, fought the streams to get to the garage and flip the switch. Their cars, of course, were all totaled. A promised helicopter never picked them up.
As the water slowed, the Rosens managed to get to a hospitable congregant’s home that remained dry. Fortunately, despite their 22 dry years, they had never canceled their flood insurance. That made them among the lucky persons who wouldn’t go bankrupt rebuilding.
And then there were the shysters plying the streets, offering quick, cheap repairs to desperate homeowners.
Genuine carpenters, plasterers and masons were and are in short supply. So are refrigerators and doors. I couldn’t imagine this in the country of Sears and Home Depot.
Houston became known as the American Jewish community that experienced the most widespread destruction. More than two-thirds of the Jews live in a community called Meyerland, named for a German-born, non-Jewish family of developers in southwestern Houston. It abuts one of Houston’s bayous. The community center and several synagogues, including Beth Yeshurun, where Rosen served, were wrecked. Black sludge filled the chapels, classrooms, offices, auditoriums. Prayer books and Bibles needed to be boxed for burial. The Torah scrolls, protected in a vault, were fortunately intact.
THE FLOOD took place three weeks before Rosh Hashanah. More than 5,000 congregants usually attend High Holy Day services at Beth Yeshurun. Where could they meet?
Help came from an unexpected source. Joel Osteen, a Houston mega-preacher whose sermons are heard by 20 million Christians a month in 100 countries, offered the main sanctuary of his home base, Lakewood Church.
“I was profoundly moved,” said Rosen. A quick inspection showed that the church had a hall that seated 18,000, that the inscriptions on the wall came from the Old Testament, and that there were no crosses. The rabbi gratefully accepted.
This is what he wrote to his dispirited congregants.
“You will not need tickets to come to any of our services. You can bring anyone with you that you wish – family and friends, caregivers, children of all ages, anyone who wants to share these highest of holy days with us.
“We have heard from so many of you that you lost much of your clothing when your homes flooded; many of your shoes floated gently away, your jewelry got packed. So this year we’re saying to everyone: Come dressed comfortably any way you wish – but come! This is going to be a New Year at Beth Yeshurun like never before.”
The church members served as greeters and ushers, and then, to the rabbi’s surprise, in addition to the Jews, hundreds of non-Jews quietly took seats in the back to observe the service out of interest and friendship.
The Israeli government quickly sent a $1 million contribution to the community relief efforts. Said Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, “For years the Jewish communities stood by Israel when it needed their help; now it is our turn to stand by Houston’s Jewish community.”
The rebuilding continues. I am determined to be a better friend. I’m reminded also to check up on other friends in California, whose property was filled by mud slides after the 2017 fires, and a friend threatened by the 2018 volcano in Hawaii. Friendship needs to go in both directions.
The High Holy Days aren’t here yet, but it’s never too early – especially in these three weeks of contemplating the destruction of our Temple – for a renewed resolve to do better.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.