Austin Responds to Hurricane Harvey’s Impact on Houston

Austin Responds to Hurricane Harvey’s Impact on Houston

By Tonyia Cone

As most people in the United States were glued to the news as Hurricane Harvey unleashed its wrath upon the Texas Gulf Coast, the Austin Jewish community leapt into action. Even before the storm hit, Austin’s Jewish institutions began organizing, an effort that continued even when parts of the Dell Jewish Community Campus and congregations around town lost power and phone service and were forced to close down themselves.

Leading up to Shabbat, local congregations asked the community to keep those affected by the storm in their prayers. Many extended this spiritual support, reaching out to those who evacuated early with invitations to Shabbat services, other events and ultimately, to those who would be displaced long-term, High Holiday Services. Local congregations and Shalom Austin called on Austinites to serve as host families for those who left their own homes in advance of the hurricane, and URJ Greene Family Camp and Camp Young Judea opened their doors to provide shelter, food, water and comfort for those in need.

The Jewish Herald-Voice, the Texas Gulf Coast’s weekly Jewish newspaper, reported that after a year’s worth of rain hammered Houston in just one week, Houston’s Jewish community was severely impacted. The homes of Jewish community members on more than 150 neighborhood blocks, as well as the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC, United Orthodox Synagogues, Beth Yeshurun synagogue and Day School, Congregation Beth Israel, the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, Jewish Family Services, and Seven Acres Jewish Senior Care Services sustained storm and flood damage.

The neighborhood adjacent to Brays Bayou in Meyerland, home to many Orthodox Jews and most of the Jewish institutions impacted, flooded for the third time in the past three years. Even homes that had not flooded previously did not escape the rain’s wrath this time. Many Jewish institution staff faced flood damage at work and home.

Shalom Austin, Jewish Family Service and Jewish Federations of North America immediately began to organize assistance, including a donation drive. Gil Levy, Chief Social Services officer and executive director of JFS in Austin, explained that as soon as Austin leaders began to understand the impact the storm would have on Houston, they started looking for ways to help. It was chaotic – there was a lot of information going around, and it was hard to reach those in Houston.

“We wanted to make sure any effort we made was going to truly be helpful. We put a lot of energy into what Houston could use and not be extraneous and not needed. We put together a list based on what they wanted to do,” Levy said.

Julie Waltzer, chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Austin Women’s Philanthropy, explained that the Austin community collected more than 500 items that were on a list of cleaning supplies, tools and other necessities, put together by JFS and the Women’s Philanthropy. The effort required more than 40 volunteers, including Andy Priestman, Shalom Austin CEO Rabbi Daniel Septimus and Congregation Tiferet Israel’s Rabbi Daniel Millner, who drove the community’s donations to Houston. The answer to the call for help was overwhelming; so many responded that the volunteer sign up was filled within an hour of sending to the community.

“The response was phenomenal,” said Waltzer. “The community really came together.”

Levy added that the volunteers and community members who brought and helped sort donations spanned generations.

“We had older adults, young families, college students. We also had many parents with young children, who used this opportunity as a teachable moment to expose their children to volunteering, the concept of Tzedakah, and the need to work hard to achieve a goal. Even the JCC Early Childhood Program classes came out to donate items,” said Levy.

In a Sept. 8 email sent to the Austin community, Septimus explained that Austin’s Jewish community donations filled two large trucks. The critical supplies were delivered to the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC of Houston September 1 and 3.

“The JCC in Houston served as the hub for distribution to those in need in the immediate aftermath of the storm, and all of our donated items were quickly distributed to Houstonians to aid their efforts to clean their homes and salvage their belongings,” said Septimus.

Shalom Austin set up and is maintaining an ongoing web page, Hurricane Harvey Relief - How You Can Help, to keep those wanting to help updated about Houston's needs.

Jewish Federations of North America also stepped in to help with the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund. By Sept. 8, Jewish Federations raised nearly $7.8 million for Hurricane Harvey relief, of which the Austin community gave more than $30,000. $1.6 million was allocated to address immediate cash grants for flood victims essential needs; extended day camp programming to make up for delayed school opening; expanding capacity of JFS to allow them to provide one-stop, comprehensive assistance; grants to individual rabbis’ discretionary funds to meet specific congregational needs; and funds to the Hebrew Free Loan Association that will match resources from Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco to create a new Hurricane Harvey loan pool.

In addition to spreading the word about Shalom Austin’s donation drive and JFNA’s relief fund, Austin congregations provided relief as well.

Congregation Agudas Achim
Congregation Agudas Achim partnered with Congregation Beth Yeshurun, which sustained significant damage. Rabbi Neil Blumofe encouraged congregants via email to donate to Houston Jewish Federation Relief efforts and the Beth Yeshurun Flood Recovery Fund. He said details will be forthcoming as the Beth Yeshurun community begins to organize repair days that will be open to those in CAA’s community who want to assist.

"We are sister congregations, with many overlapping families, and as we have had so many times to share joy together, we are here presently to show up for each other in this time of need,” he told The Jewish Outlook via email.

Blumofe also encouraged congregants to support NECHAMA, a voluntary organization rooted in Jewish values that provides response and recovery services nationwide, offering help to all people affected by disaster, and recognized CAA member Rich Saxton, a military veteran who helped with Houston rescue efforts. Saxton participated in 50 rescue missions, including one via helicopter pickup involving special forces.

SWUSY, the Southwest region of United Synagogue Youth, put out a continent-wide call for gift card donations for families in affected Houston congregations. CAA coordinated Austin support of the drive.

“The response has been quite positive, and we have gotten support from local families, and people across our network,” said Jacki Honig, SWUSY regional teen engagement director. “We know that the rebuilding efforts is going to take weeks and months (possibly even years), not days, so we will continue to accept gift cards and come to the aid of our friends and neighbors as needed.”

Congregation Beth Israel
Congregation Beth Israel’s Rabbi Steven Folberg urged congregants to support Texas Jewish Federation efforts to provide space for evacuees, and to donate gift cards to Greene Family Camp as it hosted those displaced by the storm. He also directed his community to support NECHAMA, Austin Disaster Relief Network’s Thrift Store supply donation drive and the Austin Diaper Bank drive.

Folberg asked the community to spread the word that Greene Family Camp and Camp Young Judea were providing shelter to evacuees and that Greene Family Camp partnered with the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC to provide GFC Hurricane Harvey Houston Day Camp in a facility provided by Congregation Emanu El Houston. The program was created for those in need of childcare while taking care of their lives or helping others in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

CBI Youth Group organized a High Holy Day Food Drive to benefit those affected by Hurricane Harvey, placing bins around the building to collect food and requesting online donations.

Temple Beth Shalom
Rabbi Alan Freedman encouraged congregants to support many of the same efforts – Jewish Federations and Central Texas Jewish camps that provided housing to evacuees and Austin Disaster Relief Network’s Thrift Store.

He also directed congregants to support the Union of Reform Judaism’s Hurricane Harvey relief fund before the organization partnered its fundraising efforts with JFNA after Hurricane Irma.

Freedman also asked congregants to support local community members with needs following Central Texas wind and rain damage during the storm.

“Above all else, your prayers are needed for all those affected by this horrible storm. The prophet Elijah reminds us that God is not in the storm, but God is present in our reaction to the storm; in our response to the still small voice that compels us to perform tzedakah and acts of loving kindness,” he said in an Aug. 29 email.

Freedman explained to The Jewish Outlook via email that when something as tragic as Hurricane Harvey occurs, we draw on Jewish tradition for ways in which we might respond when others are in need.  

“Two Talmudic principles guided our response as a community. The first was to focus on the needs of the recipients, taking guidance from our communal counterparts in Houston as to what was most needed under the circumstance. The other principle was that of inclusiveness. Everyone in our community was given an opportunity to help in some way; no contribution of funds, time or effort was neglected. In these ways, our reaching out to aid those in Houston was, and continues to be, an opportunity to build our own community as well,” he said.

Chabad heard Houston’s call for help loud and clear, answering with volunteers from UT’s campus and elsewhere in Austin.

Rabbi Mendy Levertov explained that he led to Houston a group of 15 people from Young Jewish Professionals, including a man from Dublin, Ireland, who was in Austin that weekend for business.

His father, Rabbi Yosef Levertov of Chabad Lubavitch of Greater Austin, also organized and led a group of Austinites to help.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Zev Johnson of Chabad Jewish Student Center at the University of Texas at Austin led a group of nearly 60 students.

Rabbi Mendy Levertov said it was particularly important for Jews to reach out to Houston’s Jewish community because it is hard having strangers in one’s home, especially during a period of such devastation. But at least when the stranger is another Jew, the experience is not as harsh.

“It takes the edge off,” he said.

While the damage was overwhelming, said Rabbi Mendy Levertov, the overall Chabad community resulted in some impressive numbers: 1,590 relief meals delivered to Houstonians affected by the hurricane, more than 50 emergency flood rescues, 2,150 volunteers deployed, 177 pallets unloaded at Chabad’s warehouse, and 200 children provided with daycare.

The day Rabbi Mendy Levertov traveled with his team to Houston, the volunteers helped in 111 homes.

“We’re not going to be able to solve their problems long term,” he said, explaining that larger organizations will have manage the heavy lifting that will be necessary in the long run.

“But we can deal with the issues on hand, which are the emergencies,” he added.

Congregation Kol Halev
Sherry Blum, Congregation Kol Halev president, said, “Tikkun olam is an essential value of Judaism, and one that is very much taken to heart at Congregation Kol Halev. I think that our tikkun olam efforts are way disproportional to the size of our congregation.”

In addition to numerous efforts for other causes throughout the year, the congregation collected diapers of all sizes, including adult sizes, wipes and money for the Austin Diaper Bank, which collected donations for Hurricane Harvey victims. The congregation also plans to organize a group volunteering session with the Austin Diaper Bank.  

“As soon as the hurricane hit, I started receiving texts, emails and phone calls from other congregants and the rabbi about how we could be of help. We have a new Sunday School for the first time in over 10 years, and one of our Sunday School parents is organizing the service opportunity with the Austin Diaper Bank. I actually did not count the donations of diapers, wipes and money that we received, but our drive is ongoing, and we will be collecting throughout the High Holidays,” Blum said.

Congregation Tiferet Israel
Congregation Tiferet Israel’s Rabbi Daniel Millner asked congregants to support the Orthodox Union’s Houston Relief Fund. In an Aug. 29 email, he also communicated a call for help from the Orthodox Union asking people to travel to Houston to provide aid through the physical work required to save homes, property and give support. David Chapin, CTI congregant, board member and educator, answered the request for the mitzvah. [See page 10 for his story.]

Millner later implored the community in a Sept. 1 email, “As more help arrives to the destroyed areas, we should not think that all is well, that the brave people of Houston no longer need our help. We should not allow the seeds of doubt to creep into our minds and hearts, enabling us to become indifferent to the plight of so many, because we think ‘someone else will be there.’ We cannot allow our concerns to be cooled, our passion to help those in need to be chilled, our desire to uplift and restore assailed by thoughts that our efforts will not ultimately count, that our outreach will not ultimately matter.  Every article of clothing, every morsel of food, every phone call we make and every email we send to those in need of chizuk, strength, matters.” ■


Ongoing Efforts: How You Can Still Help

Rabbi Daniel Septimus, Shalom Austin CEO, reminded the Austin community, “While the first round of work is done for Hurricane Harvey victims, the city of Houston and the Jewish community will need continued assistance. Cash donations and volunteer support remain the most urgent need.”

Gil Levy, Chief Social Services Officer and executive director at JFS, explained that JFS in Austin will continue to provide support to the Houston community in late September or early October by sending three clinical staff members to help with case management work with those impacted by flooding.

“They have a really overwhelming need that’s almost beyond their capacity at this point to address fully. So we’re going to help them out and send some staff to help triage people’s needs and help them process that,” said Levy.

All disaster volunteers involved with the Houston Jewish community are now being managed by All Hands, a group that addresses the immediate and long-term needs of communities impacted by natural disasters. Jewish Family Service of Houston and the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston are coordinating with All Hands to match volunteers to specific identified needs.

Sign up at or call 281-380-1892. Group opportunities are available via the online sign up form. For more information, contact

To donate to the JFNA Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, visit To donate to Houston Jewish Federation Relief efforts, visit To donate to the Orthodox Union Relief Fund, visit


Local Man Lends a Hand – and His Tools – After the Storm
By Tonyia Cone

When David Chapin loaded up his truck and left his Lampasas ranch, headed to his Austin home in anticipation of Hurricane Harvey, he packed his tools in case his house sustained damage. Then when he left Austin to deliver supplies to Houston’s Orthodox Jewish community, he thought he would return the same day. Instead, he spent the next three days putting his tools to work mucking out flooded homes in the neighborhood by United Orthodox Synagogues and Brays Bayou.

When Congregation Tiferet Israel’s Rabbi Daniel Millner sent an email asking for volunteers to take supplies to Houston’s Orthodox community, Chapin quickly answered the call. He stopped by Lowe’s, purchased all the supplies and safety equipment he could fit in his truck, and set out, guided by Waze so he could find his way around closed roads. It was an eventful trek; Chapin saw large army convoys, convoys hauling ice and new cars, a border patrol convoy, and people towing boats, some with the names of various fire rescue organizations. While fueling his car in Hempstead, the station ran out of gas.

Once Chapin arrived in Houston, he went to the Orthodox congregation. Flooded with 10 feet of water, the congregation lost many siddurim (prayer books) and a Torah.

Chapin remained to help neighborhood homes, in part because he happened to have his tools and knew what to do with them. His main role was to direct the many diverse volunteers including teenagers from across the city who came to help their teacher, a couple that was supposed to be on their honeymoon, and a large group of Mormons.

“This community of people just willing to do, to help. It was amazing,” said Chapin.

The homes Chapin encountered, many with customized kosher kitchens, were inundated with water and smelled like a cross between a swamp and sewage. But the Orthodox community had additional concerns. Appropriate food was not available until a truck from Dallas arrived with kosher meals, encouraging notes from children, and grape juice, challah and candles for Shabbat.

So many of the homeowners lived there because it was within walking distance of their shul and within its eruv. Since Orthodox Jews are not permitted to drive on Shabbat and their shul was destroyed, they were emotional, unsure what they would do for Shabbas.

In the aftermath of the storm and cleaning out their homes, Chapin explained that the community – including large families – is now split up, dispersed throughout the city.

“It was a moment in time that I’ll never forget. I didn’t find it, it found me. I did what I needed to do. These poor people are going to be dealing with it for months and months and months,” he said. ■



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