Houston After Harvey: Floods Cannot Drown Love
Walking into the building of the United Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) of Houston, I welled up with tears — because I was shocked by the devastation.
Waters from Hurricane Harvey had reached six feet high, decimating the synagogue’s large sanctuary. Waterlogged chairs had already been removed. The mechitza partition separating men and women during prayer was broken in pieces. The ark, untouched by the waters — since it was built higher off the ground — stood like a lonely, forsaken figure. Thankfully, the synagogue’s leadership had removed the Torah scrolls when weather predictions warned of the upcoming storm.
Houston today speaks truth to the rabbinic declaration — eino domeh shim’a l’re’iya. Hearing about an event, even watching it unfold on TV, does not compare to seeing it up close and personal.
Around the synagogue, for as far as the eye could see, there were piles in front of homes. Piles of wood, rolled up rugs, picture frames, empty chests of drawers, broken pieces of furniture, and tons of debris were strewn everywhere. The waters, sometimes filled with toxic waste, soaked whatever they touched, making the air inside the ruined homes difficult to breathe. Many people who were removing furniture and sheetrock from inside their own homes wore masks with filters.
In the eye of the storm’s aftermath was UOS’ Rabbi Barry Gelman, who, together with his wife Gabi, was enduring a flooding for the third time in just a few years. After moving to a new home on a higher plane after a prior hurricane, they felt confident that the heavy rains would not wreak havoc again. But they did. The Gelman’s new home is uninhabitable, and they have to relocate until it can be rebuilt.
Rav Barry, one of the great rabbis in America today, carries a great burden. Together with Gabi, they have to navigate their personal loss and also serve as a shoulder to cry on for their congregation and community.
All will be well — in part because volunteers had come from everywhere to help. Rabbis with their congregants were there from Montreal, Florida, Maryland, Washington, DC, Atlanta, GA. Students, too, had come from Yeshiva University and elsewhere. Most converged at the Robert M. Beren Academy (RMBA), where thousands of meals were being served.
In a moving moment, Rabbi Adam Starr of the Young Israel congregation of Toco Hills, Atlanta, shared his experience of visiting a Muslim family. Sitting with them, he offered spiritual comfort, and — along with his congregants — did the physical work of heavy lifting and cleaning. The waters of Harvey didn’t discriminate between faiths and nationalities — everyone in its path was affected.
The scene in the sanctuary of Beth Yeshurun, a mammoth conservative synagogue in Houston, was also overwhelming. Hundreds of seats were flipped over on their sides, and papers were stacked in small bundles in another area — in the hopes that they would dry out and somehow be recovered.
As I stood in the sanctuary, I found it hard to breathe. Since suffering a heart attack many years ago, I’m especially sensitive to air that is less than pure. My visit brought home on a very personal level what many in the area were experiencing, with one major difference: I would be leaving town the next day. They would remain.
As frightening as Houston was, I left uplifted. A pathway to feeling God’s presence is experiencing a sense of communal unity. In the Shema, we declare, “God is One.” When people of diverse backgrounds help one another, we feel a spark of the divine. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote about the oneness of God: “God means: Togetherness of all beings in holy otherness.”
When we declare this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, “Who shall live and who shall die,” and then call out, “Who by water,” I’ll be thinking of Police Officer Steve Perez and 31-year-old Alonso Guillen amongst others. Both these men gave their lives in Houston, while trying to save others in the whirlwind waters of Harvey.
As the late Leonard Cohen wrote, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” That’s what’s happening in Houston today — light is coming in. As King Solomon once wrote mayim rabim lo yuchlu le’chabot et ha’ahavah — floods cannot drown love.
Rabbi Avi Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale — the Bayit and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat.