Awash With Chesed

As the second fateful week since Harvey draws to a close, the time has come to shift from rescue and survival mode and start focusing on the road ahead. For the Jewish community of Houston, the bleak road is studded with beacons of light from the sheer outpouring of help that has come in from around the country.

“Not to sound insensitive,” Rabbi Yerachmiel Garfield, menahal of Houston’s Yeshiva Torat Emet, told the Yated, “but the storm of chesed was perhaps bigger than the storm of water, and I’ve seen the storm of water firsthand.”

Rabbi Gidon Moskovitz of the Meyerland Minyan shared the following notion with the Yated.

“I told my shul this Shabbos that we indeed have a very unique blessing: none of us are suffering alone. Help is coming in from around the country, and even around the world.

“We have an option on our website, meyerlandminyan.org, for people to donate to flood victims. There is a box for donors to write what city they’re from. There are donations coming in from West Hempstead, Brooklyn, Miami Beach, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Eretz Yisroel, and Mexico, to name just a few. There was even one from Belarus.

“Even in Houston itself, many people are involved in helping others. I just came from a meeting with people from the Young Israel and Bet Rambam area, which didn’t flood, and they want to help out as much as possible.”

Members of the Lakewood Kollel, who also live in an intact area, have been going around to the other neighborhoods to help.

Rabbi Garfield noted that the relief efforts have really brought the community together. “Many different sectors of the frum community have all forged into one group, united in support for one another.”

In addition to follow Houston residents, numerous volunteers from around the county have descended on the city to help in any way they could. Rabbi Garfield expounded on the main objective of the volunteers.

“Right now, there are two major jobs that need to be done,” he explains. “The first is the removal of people’s debris. This constitutes emptying their houses of every single thing that got damaged from the flood water. I was in houses where we had to go through all the personal belongings, and decide on each if it was too far damaged or if it was perhaps still salvageable. Much of the stuff is mushy and filthy. I don’t want to scare away potential volunteers, but it is a messy job.

“The second job that has to be done now is to help coordinate and distribute the food and supplies that is coming into the city from elsewhere. There’s sorting, delivering, and even food preparation that has to be done.”

Rabbi Barry Gelman of the UOS told the Yated of the volunteers that have come to his area.

“Teams have come to us from Yeshiva University, NCSY, Chabad, and from the Dallas community.

“The volunteers really helped clean the houses, and get anything salvageable packed up, so that people could move on to the next stage. Now they can work on finding a temporary residence, and can start dealing with insurance claims.”

Rabbi Gelman’s own home was flooded with about a foot of water throughout his house.

“A team of Mormons was actually working at my house on Friday, for almost the whole day.”

He stressed that the camaraderie felt by all transcended sects and beliefs.

Bentzi Inzelbuch, son of prominent Lakewood attorney Michael I. Inzelbuch, traveled from Lakewood along with five friends to lend their hands. He and another volunteer are members of Lakewood OEM, another two are from Lakewood Chaveirim, and the last two are from Lakewood First Aid. They were the first team from Lakewood to arrive.

“We worked side-by-side with all different types of people. One of the people carrying debris with us turned out to be a prominent politician. His name is Orlando Sanchez, and he has been the treasurer of Harris County, Texas since 2006. He later sent out a Facebook post praising our team.”

The team gained a tremendous respect for the residents of Houston.

“The community here is one of the nicest I’ve ever seen. Everywhere we go, there is an outpouring of gratitude for the work we are doing.”

He shared an interesting incident.

“When we came down here, we put all our strength in to get as much done as possible. After subsisting on canned army-style food for two days, we finally managed to sit down for a solid meal in a local kosher restaurant. Right at the onset, someone came over and announced that all our drinks are on him. He actually encouraged us to order as many drinks as we can, saying that after all the hard labor, we needed to relax.

“Soon after, another person approached us. This irreligious man walked up and said simply, ‘Thank you very much. May G-d bless you.’ We thought nothing more of him.

“Being famished, our six-member team racked up an $800 tab. As we stood up to pay, we were informed that our entire bill had already been paid for. We were flabbergasted. When we inquired who paid for it, they described him. It was the very man who thanked us and then disappeared.

“He had come by for so short, I wouldn’t even recognize him if I saw him again. But his appreciation was overwhelming.”

Rabbi Moskowitz says that the impression that they made on the community was noteworthy.

“The members of my shul were talking very fondly about the ‘Lakewood guys.’ As a kiruv community, many of them have never heard of Lakewood, and it was their first experience with frumkeit beyond Houston. They were astounded that there are frum Yidden whom they never met who are willing to come in and help out complete strangers. It’s a tremendous kiddush Hashem.”

Rabbi Boruch Ber Bender of Achiezer was instrumental in coordinating the many volunteers.

“I would estimate that there are already between 200 to 300 frum Yidden here helping out,” Rabbi Bender told the Yated on Sunday. “I was also just told by Rabbi Posy of the OU, who is my man on the ground in New York, that there are another 250 slated to come this week.”

“One of my main objectives here is to coordinate all the efforts, so that each person is doing something not already being done by another. By eliminating redundancies, relief efforts are so much more effective.”

Rabbi Nosson Dubin, Rabbinic Administrator of the Houston Kashrus Association (HKA), described the efforts within the community to organize the emergency relief.

“Basically, we created a huge organization and drove it to max capacity in just one week. There are many roles: securing trucks, truck drivers, warehouses, inventory control, volunteer liaison, securing lodging for volunteers, food accruement, food distribution, communications, intake, donation bookkeeping, and even calling community member to ensure they have filled out the necessary forms. Each role has been filled by someone, whose sole responsibility is to do that role. This ensures that any aid gets to its proper destination smoothly.”

Rabbi Dubin, in addition to helping with the delegation of roles, also serves as the one who keeps track of the number of volunteers needed in each field, and passes that information on to the organizations who pool the volunteers.

“We are working in conjunction with Rabbi Adir Posy of the OU, who is categorizing and directing all offers for help. Anyone who has anything to offer calls him, and he guides them to the right place. Additionally, anyone who wants to volunteer contacts him, and we let him know where they are most needed.”

Aside from the people who volunteered to help in the cleanup, truckloads of food and supplies were sent in from cities around America.

Rabbi Shlomo Abrams of the Jewish Learning Center of Dallas, who incidentally is the chavrusa of Rabbi Gidon Moskovitz of Houston’s Meyerland Minyan, told the Yated about the efforts of his community.

“We converted our outreach facility into a drop-off center for much needed supplies. We also arranged with a moving company to supply a truck to transport everything to Houston, a four hour drive from Dallas.”

He says that the response was well beyond his expectations.

“We had hundreds of people come by to drop off items, as well as many who stayed to help organize and label all the boxes. The moving company is owned by a mekurav of mine, who said that he would gladly send ten trucks if it was needed.”

Rebbetzin Abrams, who was equally involved in the campaign, noted that all facets of the community worked together as one to ensure the success of the drive.

The Abrams’ were not the only ones in Dallas to spring into action. Rabbi Abrams told the Yated about the food deliveries that were sent in from Dallas.

“Rabbi Bentzy Epstein of the Dallas Kollel, Rabbi Sholey Klein of the Dallas Vaad Hakashrus, Chaim Goldfeder, who owns Texas Kosher Barbeque, and Lowell Michelson, owner of Simcha Kosher Catering, all got together to arrange a steady stream of meals for Houston.

“2,000 meals were prepared in Dallas, and delivered to Houston for Shabbos. Chaim Goldfeder also has his food truck parked in Houston for the next two weeks or so, which will prepare a thousand meals a day, in addition to a refrigerated truck with the raw ingredients.”

“Yosef Mutterperl from the South Side Sandwich Shop in Lakewood dropped everything and came to Texas to help,” Rabbi Sholey Klein told the Yated. “I can’t tell you how helpful he was. It was because of him that the operation ran as smoothly as it did. He hasn’t gotten much credit for it, but his business suffered while he was gone, and he is a real hero.”

Besides the aid from Texas, supplies was sent in from Jewish communities nationally.

Last week, two brothers from Lakewood rented three trucks, which they filled with donated supplies and sent off to Houston.

Mayer Gold, CEO of Seasons Kosher, spearheaded a far-reaching campaign to collect supplies from major frum communities on the east coast and send them to Houston.

“A lot of us from Seasons live in Far Rockaway and the Five Towns, and have experienced Hurricane Sandy, so we know firsthand the experience that those in Houston are now undergoing,” he told the Yated.

He explained that a lot of thought had to go into the process to ensure that the good intentions indeed led to actual relief.

“Imagine if we sent a truck full of frozen food. It wouldn’t accomplish anything, because most people have lost their freezers.”

He reached out to Rabbi Zvi Gluck of Amudim, Rabbi Bender of Achiezer, and the OU, who have the framework and experience to organize such efforts.

“Rabbi Boruch Ber Bender of Achiezer went down to Houston and set up an infrastructure to accept our shipments. He also compiled a list of what was needed by the victims, so that we can send the supplies they needed most.”

He explained why he felt personally responsible to get involved.

“As someone who experienced Sandy, we have a slightly broader perspective on the needs. People don’t realize, but they will need costumes for Purim, because the costumes were all destroyed. All sukkos will have to be replaced. Same thing with Pesach dishes, and summer clothing. People don’t look so far ahead. But our experience has allowed us to help them beyond what is currently on their minds.”

The initiative led to yet another display of achdus.

“After we launched our campaign, Evergreen Supermarket called us up, and they too got involved. They were a great help, as we really needed a drop-off center in Monsey.”

The response to the collection drive was overwhelming. Gold told the Yated that someone showed up at the Lakewood location with a pallet of children’s clothing, and another brought two pallets of chicken to Evergreen’s Monsey location.

He noted that besides all the food and supplies, people have walked into the stores and have given checks in various amounts, ranging from one dollar to five hundred.

“We had drop off centers at all our locations, which include the Five Towns, Queens, Manhattan, Scarsdale, Lakewood, Clifton, and Baltimore. We also had a center in Flatbush, which together with the Evergreen Monsey location, totaled nine drop-off centers.

“We coordinated our stores to each accept a different type of supplies, and publicized such in each neighborhood. Lakewood, for example, donated much of the baby needs, Monsey had a freezer truck, and the Five Towns took care of generators, air mattresses, and the like. Aside from this making it easier for each community to donate, and ensuring that every aspect was covered, it also eased the burden of sorting everything. Without such a system, it would’ve taken weeks to sort everything out and successfully match everyone up with their needs.”

He praised the many volunteers, all arranged by Achiezer, who manned each location. Some accepted the supplies, others boxed them, and some drove all the trucks down to Houston. In Houston, there was another team of volunteers who processed the deliveries and made sure that they got to the right addresses.

He added an interesting tidbit.

“The New York Police Department dropped off five crates of police supplies at our Manhattan center for us to bring to the police department in Houston. It was a tremendous kiddush Hashem.”

Lakewood’s Deputy Mayor and U.S. Air Force Major Menashe Miller told the Yated that this wave of chesed is extraordinary from his perspective as a member of the kehillah, as well as from his viewpoint as an officer in the military.

“It is amazing to see how we all band together as a kehillah anytime a need arises.

“In terms of the military, standard procedures can delay aid by a substantial amount of time. The military has to assess the needs, and determine to what capacity they can help. They have to involve state and federal agencies, and set up all the logistics necessary before actually sending aid. In the frum community, it works so much faster.

“When the media outlets publicized Lakewood’s collection drive, officers on the base approached me and asked if they, too, can send things along. I immediately agreed, and I drove directly from McGuire Air Force Base to Seasons in Lakewood to drop off their donations.”

The collection drive has gotten so much response, that they were able to close up early.

“My wife, who has undertaken to coordinate the different drop-off centers, has heard from them that they were completely maxed-out,” Rabbi Bender of Achiezer explains. “We also checked the list of supplies needed, and we pretty much got everything. We were worried that people would just keep on bringing things, and we didn’t want anything to go to waste, so we put out the call to stop bringing. Boruch Hashem, we couldn’t have anticipated a better response.”

The Houston community has been astounded by the assistance coming in from all the different channels. Rabbi Moskovitz sums it all up with one poignant thought.

“The posuk says in this week’s haftorah, ‘Ve’ameich kulom tsaddikim.’ We here in Houston lived this feeling the last two weeks.