Why Houston makes me hopeful

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I met with Karyn Moskowitz, director of New Roots, about volunteer opportunities. Our conversation turned to the difference between direct and indirect service.
Is it more important to help in a hands-on way or to provide financial support, ensuring the infrastructure can support the work? Is one more important than the other?
We agreed that hands-on help is important; it makes a difference and it feels good. However, we agreed that without financial support, the mission cannot be met.
On my recent visit to Houston for a Jewish Federations of North America conference, I saw how both types of service are shaping the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Houston will feel the devastation of Harvey for years to come. Houston’s Jewish community primarily lives in a two-mile radius hit hard by the hurricane. We visited the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC, saw significant damage to the building and watched a time-lapsed security video of the water rising, eventually breaking the walls. While communal professionals and rabbis provided comfort and help to others, many of those same leaders also lost their own homes.
One young mother evacuated her two-story house when her family and friends were trapped on the second floor. She shared the terrifying story of strangers rescuing her family as she walked with one of her 8-month-old twins strapped to her chest in waste-high water. She described two strangers in a Toyota Tacoma truck with a canoe tied to the back, which her husband and friend rode in. Just a few days later, she and other professionals were back at the JCC offering all-day childcare with meals provided, so that parents could begin the painstaking process of cleaning up the damage including putting their families’ belongings in the front yard for trash removal.
The Jewish Houston community has received generous support from around the country and the world. So far, $20 million has been raised, but an additional $20 million is still needed. Families in Jewish Houston are faced with an immediate choice: $200,000 to lift their dwellings higher off the ground or leave. Many have decided to not return to their homes, including a childhood friend, Leah Wishnia Mueller, who was among those sharing their stories at the conference. I asked Leah how she and her family were holding up (this was the third flood she has experienced). She said she will be fine. It is the elderly Holocaust survivors she works with at Houston’s Jewish Family Service that she worries about.
Many families now face tough choices that affect providing children with Jewish experiences: summer camp, religious education, etc. Understandably, many cannot make Jewish life a priority right now.
Our tradition teaches us about kindness, tzedakah, mitzvot, caring and leadership to save one life is to save the world. Everyone can make a difference; everyone can be someone’s hero. It is clear from Houston’s experience that helping hands are needed and financial commitment is imperative.
Our Federation, like Houston’s and others across North America, ensure that the core needs of Jews are met. We step up in times of crisis and need. This year alone, JFNA, through Federation donors, has supported the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and the destruction of URJ Camp Newman in California from wildfires.
The aftermath of the hurricane was one of many issues and topics explored in Houston. Connecting and energizing the next generation in Jewish life specifically through education and engagement was another prominent topic. I have attended many conferences over the years. This week in Houston, I noticed that BBYO seemed to be on the tips of everyone’s tongue’s. Most striking were the causal and formal references to personal BBYO experiences leading to a career in the Jewish community, which is my story too. This gave me great confidence that we are creating the right platform for the next generation. Right now, twenty-two Jewish Louisville teens are with BBYO Director Kari Semel at an international convention with 3000 teens in Orlando. These teens will become future leaders of our community. They have their own dreams and will draw upon their experiences as they embrace leadership positions in the Jewish community.
My trip to Houston reinforced the importance of supporting the communal infrastructure to ensure that our core needs (including BBYO) are cared for as well as to respond when crisis arise.

(Sara Klein Wagner is president and CEO of the Jewish Community of Louisville.)

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