At first, the older couple waved off the offer of help.
But Rabbi Sholom Deitsch of Chabad Lubavitch of Northern Virginia was patient and persistent. Only days before Hurricane Irma struck Florida, Deitsch had come to Houston last week with 50 other Chabad rabbis to help people in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
The people of Houston have their pride and don’t want to feel like they’re accepting handouts, Deitsch said by telephone on Sept. 6. Eventually, the couple, who had lived in the heavily Jewish Meyerland neighborhood for decades, told the rabbi they could use his help.
“You start by doing one thing for them,” Deitsch said. “And they go, ‘No, you don’t have to do that,’ and then you do another and before you know it, you have a team of seven people packing up the house and tearing down moldy walls.”
The couple, in their 80s, waited out the flood by getting on the kitchen counters of their one-story home and praying the water didn’t get higher than that, said Rabbi Leibel Fajnland of Chabad of Reston-Herndon, who was also on the trip and spoke to the JT by phone on Sept. 7.
“And then you look at the counter and imagine these two people who have spent their lives together wondering if they would see their kids and grandkids again,” he said. “It’s devastating.”
While much of the help the rabbis are giving is physical or logistical, they’re also putting their pastoral training to use by lending a sympathetic ear to traumatized people.
“We’re here to help with whatever is needed,” Deitsch said while traveling to a Red Cross center to make food packages. “They don’t want handouts, but they need it.”
Deitsch’s group has teamed up with Chabad of Houston, which has been coordinating recovery efforts both within and outside of the Jewish community. According to its website, the organization has “rescued, cleaned houses, cooked, organized aid and distributed food and supplies nonstop over the past week.”
And while the nonstop pace will be settling down as long-term recovery efforts start to take shape, Chabad promises it is “coordinating with Jewish Family Services and other agencies in the community to make sure that [victims] get whatever help the community can provide.”
The trip to Houston was organized by 1Mitzvah, a philanthropic group founded by Chabad Rabbi Yossi Lipsker, to provide counseling and support to the flood-devastated area. Harvey dumped several feet of rain on Houston and surrounding areas last month. At least 70 deaths are attributed to Harvey and subsequent flooding.
Deitsch described ruined furniture and mattresses piled high outside of homes, moldy walls and floors, the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston destroyed.
He said it sends a strong message of support for so many rabbis to drop everything to come help during one of the busiest times on the Jewish calendar.
“They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but nothing really prepares you for this,” Fajnland said. “I mean, a picture can’t capture the smell or the absolute emotional devastation.”