You may know this famous rabbinic parable about a group of people traveling in a boat. One passenger takes out a drill and begins drilling a hole under his seat. The other passengers, quite understandably, complain that this action may cause the boat to sink. “Why should this bother you?” this man responds, “I am only drilling under my own seat.” The others retort, “But the water will rise up and flood the ship for all of us!” (Vayikra Rabbah 4:6).
The moral of the story is clear: one person’s destructive action may literally drown the entire community. But the inverse is also true: a single positive change may transform an entire community. Thus, taking care of the most-vulnerable within society may help the community as a whole to flourish.
It was to help the most-vulnerable that we traveled to Houston, Texas for several days in early November. Two months after Hurricane Harvey, many families and institutions are far along in their post-storm clean-up and rebuilding. While large numbers are still in temporary housing and construction workers swarm the city, the initial demolition efforts are largely concluded. For most. However, there are some, for whatever reason, whose homes look very much like they did immediately after the catastrophic floodwaters receded. It was to help these families – who could not help themselves – that we traveled to Houston.
How did we find families who needed our assistance and what did we do?
Our mission to Houston took place in partnership with a Jewish organization called Nechama (“comfort,” in Hebrew). The Nechama voluntary organization provides natural disaster response and recovery services nationwide. They typically respond – and remain for several months – after floods, tornadoes, and other natural disasters. Nechama describes their work as rooted in the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam (“repairing the world through acts of kindness”). They offer help to all people affected by disaster on the basis of need regardless of religious affiliation.
In Houston, Nechama received information on particular individuals and properties that needed post-storm clean-out. They matched those properties with unskilled (but eager) volunteers – like our group – to do the painstaking work of removing destroyed flooring, soaked walls and other debris from homes.
Our group worked in three homes. In the first, the family still lived in the house and the middle-aged son, while rather handy himself, was overwhelmed by the rebuilding task before him. We cut out the dam-aged walls and demolished their kitchen and bathroom giving him a clean slate to slowly rebuild the home.
We worked in another home that, perhaps, should have been knocked down altogether. Our charge, though, was to remove all of the flooring, ceilings and walls. The debris pile on the curb was twenty feet long and ten feet high by the end of the day. Fortunately, this family had received a grant for rebuilding supplies that they would use themselves to put the home back together. Eventually, they will re-inhabit their home.
We visited two Jewish sites during the course of the trip – the Jewish Community Center of Houston and Beth Yeshurun, the largest Conservative synagogue in the world. The JCC, a major communal hub, had more than one third of their facility destroyed by ten-plus feet of water that remained for nearly a week. Despite this damage, they immediately became a post-storm relief site and, among other things, opened free “hurricane day camp” for children, while parents sought to reorganize their lives amidst their flooded homes. Beth Yeshurun saw four feet of water throughout their giant facility and remains an active construction site with many weeks of work until the congregation can return. All of the Beth Yeshurun clergy had their homes destroyed as well.
Upon our return, I reviewed what our Jewish tradition says about the most-vulnerable within a society. I came upon this explanation: The overarching Jewish attitude toward the most vulnerable in our society is best summed up by a single word in the Bible, “achikha” (your broth-er). With this word, the Torah insists on the dignity of all people, rich and poor, and it commands us to resist any temptation to view the poor as somehow different from ourselves. The vulnerable person, the poor person, is like our sibling, and should be treated as such. All humans are described in the Book of Genesis as being created “b’tzelem elokim” in the image of God; every person is a manifestation of the divine image.
Rabbi Jill Levy, Director of Jewish Living and Learning at the Houston JCC (and a classmate of mine) – despite the tremendous damage to her institution – was moved to tears by the fact that homes still needed the initial clean-out work that we had come to do. Her community members, thankfully, were well-organized and had the wherewithal to immediately begin the rebuilding process. Not so, the poor of Houston. And we were all proud to represent the Jewish Community Center of Harrison in giving them several days of assistance, solidarity and friendship this past month. I know that many others within the congregation had hoped to join our delegation. As other opportunities arise, it is my hope to channel the positive energies of our congregation to meet needs elsewhere in the coming months and years. Thank you for your encouragement.