(May 28, 2015 / JNS)
As Jewish media far and wide started picking up on the story of this week’s devastating flood in Houston, which hit Jewish-heavy neighborhoods particularly hard, JNS.org was (in my own estimation) conspicuously late to join the reporting. That is by design. I am both our editor and a resident of Houston, and in the days after the May 25-26 storm, the flood was a life event rather than a news story.
But as I type these words on Thursday morning, May 28, while my local Jewish community continues to engage in inspirational relief efforts for its affected members, I feel some measure of distance from the event itself and am finally ready to write about the flood—but as a human being, not as a news reporter. For many others who suffered much worse material and emotional damage than I did, I’m sure that such “distance” isn’t possible right now, so I hope my writing can serve as somewhat of a holding space for their feelings.
The night of May 25, which coincided with the end of Shavuot, started normally enough. Sure, my wife and I could see persistent lightning outside the window of our third-floor apartment, but it was initially more of an artsy light show than a concern. After a few hours, however, we saw some cars flooding outside and figured it would be a good idea to check on my wife’s car, which was parked in the bottom level of our building’s lot.
On the way down, the elevator stalled at the bottom level, and some water started to spill inside. The doors initially wouldn’t open. At that point, my wife and I weren’t aware of how much water was actually outside the elevator. When the doors did open after perhaps the longest minute of my life, the water was up to our knees. When we saw my wife’s car inundated with water, it was clear that nothing could be done to save it. But after escaping a disaster in the elevator, the car was the furthest thing from my thoughts. I was simply grateful to be alive.
Looking outside my apartment window the next morning, to call the scene akin to the Great Flood from the Book of Genesis isn’t much of an exaggeration. The surrounding area was, quite literally, a lake. We learned that the flooded cars we had visited in our parking lot just hours earlier were now completely underwater. After the perfunctory call to our car insurance provider, I began to obsess a little more about our car than I had in the immediate aftermath of the “at least I’m alive” gratitude that followed the elevator experience.
But as we regained power and Internet access later in the day, we learned of the far-worse damage sustained by those living in homes near our synagogue, United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston (UOS). Numerous homes of our fellow congregants were destroyed, and almost every area of the synagogue building was significantly damaged. At that point, despite my angst about losing a car, it was clear that we had gotten off easy. That doesn’t mean I stopped thinking about the car altogether—far from it—but it was the ultimate lesson in perspective-taking and putting myself in others’ shoes.
The way I see it, the historically severe Houston flood presents an opportunity to reflect on some important Jewish values—which are also human values. Some of the values that follow below can be difficult to embrace or understand in the heat of the moment, when disaster strikes. But with time, they carry the potential to be comforting, empowering, and inspirational.
Kol Yisrael Areivim Ze La’ze
Translated as “all the people of Israel are responsible for one another,” this value has been vividly manifested in my Jewish community during and after the flood. On the night of the deluge and continuing into the next day, Facebook became a mission control center, with residents of the area surrounding the UOS synagogue frantically—but oh so efficiently—spreading news on which families needed rescuing, tagging the names of both the individuals in the most dire situations and those with the rafts and canoes to save them. Particularly iconic—as well as viral on traditional and social media—has become an image of the elderly rabbi emeritus of UOS, Rabbi Joseph Radinsky, being rescued in a canoe by fellow community members Donniel Ogorek and Morgan Davies. Looking back on the Facebook “news feed” that chronicles the immediate Jewish communal response to the flood is a true inspiration.
Also inspirational is my community’s ongoing grassroots flood-relief effort. The frantic Facebook tagging has shifted to more methodical online spreadsheets that are recruiting help for affected individuals and families, who are in need of shelter, clean clothing, food, cleanup help, and peace of mind. Indeed, “all the people of Israel are responsible for one another” has been taken to heart here in Houston.
The Jewish value of “repairing the world” is frequently invoked in communal circles. Some would say that it has become almost a catchphrase, or even a semi-politicized term associated primarily with progressive/liberal Jewry rather than traditional Jews who are also looking to repair the world. But in the aftermath of the Houston flood, there is no such polarizing debate about Tikkun Olam. The “world,” in this case our local community, is literally in need of repair. To that end, Jewish organizations are doing their part to raise disaster-relief funds. Among the fundraisers—I apologize in advance to those I am inevitably missing in this space—are B’nai B’rith International (here), the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston (here), and the Orthodox Union (here). The Jewish Federations of North America umbrella organization, meanwhile, has allocated $25,000 from its Emergency Committee to assist with the relief efforts.
“Recognizing the good” is particularly difficult in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, especially for those who are most severely affected. My personal loss of a car turned out to be relatively insignificant within the spectrum of the losses experienced by other members of my community. Besides the important understanding of “it could have been worse,” the car loss presented a unique opportunity for Hakarat Hatov when juxtaposed with being stuck in the elevator, even if only for a minute. My wife and I lost a car. But we did not lose our lives by drowning in an elevator. Nor did we lose a home or any other vital personal possessions. And of course, the car is both insured and replaceable. There is so much good to be recognized. I have seen fellow community members, particularly those who lost their homes, show much more impressive Hakarat Hatov. Despite their significant material loss, they are expressing gratitude for their safety, their future, the assistance they have received, and the replaceability of their possessions. This is another instance in which my Facebook news feed has been inspirational.
Gam Zu L’tovah
“This, too, is for the best.” It’s a Jewish expression that can be seen as an extension of Hakarat Hatov, yet goes even further by saying that there is not only good to be recognized amid a disaster, but that the disaster itself is for the best. As difficult as it is to recognize the good in the context of trauma, what is even harder is to view the actual traumatic portion as a benefit. For those who lost homes and everything else they own in the Houston flood, or worse, those who lost family members, acknowledging “Gam Zu L’tovah” must be a virtual impossibility. Even if a traumatized individual speaks those words aloud, and even for the most emotionally mature and balanced victims of this disaster who are able to show remarkable perspective-taking skills, it must be so difficult to actually believe inside that everything that happened is “for the best.”
But at least on a community-wide level, this value is already being internalized in Houston. Yes, there is a long road ahead. The repairs will be costly, and they will require much time and patience. Yet the remarkable display of Jewish unity resulting from the flood will have an enduring positive effect, bringing the community closer together than ever. Inspiration, it seems, sometimes comes with a heavy price tag. In the process, both internal character and meaningful interpersonal relationships are built.
This, too, is for the best.
Jacob Kamaras is the editor in chief of JNS.org.