Down in the Lone Star State last week they were not expecting severe wintry weather. Nor were they expecting a truck from Lakewood, New Jersey, to roll into town on Friday filled with boxes of home-baked challah, grape juice, and other standard Shabbos foods. It was as if both winter and Purim had arrived unexpectedly.
A severe blast of unusual winter weather blew into parts of Texas last week and did awful damage to many homes and local institutions, inflicting millions of dollars of damage over a few days that will take many months to recover from and rebuild.
In the two largest cities of the state there are 127,000 Jews. According to Dr. Hannah Lebovits, who sent us an e-mail last Friday, about 10% percent are frum, which, regardless of how you view things, is a significant number, and a crisis like this impacts them in an extraordinary way.
For those of us here in the northeast who experienced Hurricane Sandy in 2012, we know what it’s like to be sitting comfortably at home one minute and losing all power in the next. And that’s aside from the structural damage to so many homes. It’s almost a decade since, and in some areas people are still rebuilding from that one terrible storm. As with so many other things in life, doing damage or bringing on destruction can happen in a blink of an eye; correcting a situation or rebuilding can take an immense amount of time and effort.
If there is a positive aspect to a disaster, it is the fashion in which Jewish communities are connected and feel an achrayos, a responsibility and even an obligation, to one another when there is peril or danger that we can help alleviate, no matter how far from us that community is.
To that end you may have read or seen the story about how a truck with food for Shabbos made its way from Lakewood to Dallas—and the logistical details in getting that done before Shabbos. At the same time, it could very well be that not that many people would have known about the extent of the problems in Texas if Senator Ted Cruz had not decided to leave his home in Houston last Wednesday night and fly with his wife and daughters to Cancun, Mexico.
That the popular Republican senator and former and possibly future presidential candidate left a freezing and almost paralyzed state for the warmth of Cancun made headlines around the world. The message his critics were trying to communicate was that Cruz was no less a hypocrite than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who went without a mask into a hair salon in San Francisco when all salons in the state were ordered shut a few months ago. Or, for that matter, how her nephew, Governor Gavin Newsom of California, dined indoors, without a mask, at the French Laundry restaurant when he banned all indoor dining in the state. If the news was not slanted and distorted, they would have reported that what Cruz did was nothing like the hypocrisy displayed by Pelosi, Newsom, and others.
Those above matters are trivial diversions that are even distracting me from telling the story about how Jewish communities answer the call to help out one another.
Boruch Ber Bender learned from very real and hard experience about how to function in an emergency and crisis situation. Achiezer was created shortly before Hurricane Sandy struck the northeast. There are many well-organized groups out there poised to help, but few better exemplify the adage of “Who is like this people Israel” than the organization based in the Five Towns that he founded and directs.
When he heard that the communities in Dallas and Houston were dealing with a situation similar to what we had here in 2012, he mobilized his staff and sprang into action.
The first thing to do was to identify the greatest area of need and to begin organizing in that direction. It was getting close to Shabbos, and food stores in Texas had scarce supplies on top of having lost power. According to Boruch Ber, since food for Shabbos was being organized by the Lakewood Bikur Cholim, the next most important matter was addressing the severe damage to homes that, aside from no electricity or running water, were rendered unlivable by the ferocity of the storm.
“Our director of operations, Shalom Jaroslawicz, quickly set up a WhatsApp group looking for service professionals who would be able to head to Texas in order to begin repair work on homes and make them livable again,” Bender says. To that end, he adds that Avrumi Goldfeder of the electrical service company, Electric and Beyond, answered the call and began organizing a crew of plumbers and electricians who were on their way to Houston and Dallas when we spoke on Monday.
Meyer Brill, the director of development for Lakewood Bikur Cholim, said that as soon as news of the power failure reached them, the first thought was how the community could have as traditional and customary a Shabbos as possible.
He says that they quickly got to work buying what they needed to cook fish, roast chicken, put together kugels, and much more. The cooking, he says, was done in the Lakewood Bikur Cholim kitchen and in restaurants in the community.
“Some of the restaurants that don’t open until lunch or dinner had their staff come in early to cook for the communities in Texas,” Brill says. He explains that it was already Thursday morning and that it was a 24-hour trip by truck to Dallas and Houston.
Two young men volunteered to drive straight to Dallas, and they arrived at noon on Friday. Dr. Lebovitz, who lives in Dallas, expressed that it was a wonderful and warm gesture that meant a lot to the community. According to Mr. Brill of Bikur Cholim, they shipped about 1,000 meals to feed 250 families over Shabbos.
Hannah Lebovitz added that beyond the need for food there is a great need for funding to help with home repairs. She says that insurance companies are notoriously slow when it comes to paying out claims, and in the meantime people desperately want to get back into their homes.
This week the daytime temperature in both Houston and Dallas rose and on Tuesday it was 71°F. But last week, when the temperature was in the twenties, people took refuge in some of the local shuls that had power or had the use of generators to power their facilities. Boruch Ber says that one of the Achiezer volunteers, Mark Glicksman, spent days locating generators and had them sent to homes that were useable in both cities.
In Houston, the home of NASA, the Astros, and the Texans football team, the impact was not as severe as it was in Dallas. Shimon Puderbeutel relocated to Houston from Cedarhurst almost two years ago. He says that because Houston is on the coast, closer to the sea than Dallas, the temperatures are usually warmer, and though it was unusually cold in Houston last week, the frigid weather did not last as long as—or do the extensive damage—it did further north in Dallas.
He says that overall, the problems centered on the fact that homes are not constructed or insulated so as to withstand freezing weather conditions. One of the biggest problems in both cities was the pipes bursting and doing extreme water damage to homes, which impacted on electrical service and then spiraled downward, making homes unlivable.
According to Mr. Puderbeutel, the crisis in Houston was not as extreme as in Dallas. He says that supermarkets and other food establishments were able to remain open and continue serving the community. I asked him how he likes living in Houston after all his years in the Five Towns and he summed it up like this: “This is an excellent community and life is great down here, but we only have one kosher pizza store and one kosher steakhouse.”
These Texas communities are currently being restored. As Rabbi Shalom Meltzer of the Texas Torah Institute told me, it was a tough year with COVID and now this, but once again they are on their way back. I asked the rabbi if at any point the yeshiva had to close and he responded, “No, we learned by the sunlight and the students wore their coats.”
Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.