From rabbis to students, Jewish Atlanta has responded with hands and hearts as well as wallets to the destruction left by Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana.
When the Orthodox Union called, and the Toco Hills community answered.
Led by Congregation Beth Jacob Rabbi Ilan Feldman and Young Israel of Toco Hills Rabbi Adam Starr, Jewish Atlantans made their way in small groups to Houston to help with the demolition and cleanup in the hard-hit Houston Jewish community, where synagogues and day schools suffered significant damage along with homes.
“Everybody here is stoic, calm, matter of fact, doing their job, only a couple of cryings,” Rabbi Feldman said.
“Everyone we’ve run into thanks us profusely and thanks our community for sending us,” Rabbi Starr said.
The two rabbis demonstrated Harvey’s effects in a Facebook Live video Tuesday, Sept. 5, from a home where the waterline was around 5 feet. The demolition crews included contractors who had almost finished building the house before the storm, as well as Shalom Teller, whom Rabbi Starr called “a tremendous force” in the cleanup.
“We’re here really to provide comfort in the emotional and spiritual sense. At the same time, I can tell you these two rabbis are getting their hands very, very dirty with the physicality of what needs to be done of the actual cleanup,” Rabbi Starr said.
The rabbis’ group included Atlanta Jewish Academy eighth-grader Shami Frenkel, who said his father, Yisrael, decided to go to Houston when Rabbi Starr sought volunteers, and Shami said yes when his dad asked him to make the Labor Day weekend trip as well.
The Frenkels were in Houston from Sunday through Tuesday.
“We heard about the problem, and we wanted to help out,” Shami said.
“Shami’s parents are amazing role models,” said Erica Gal, AJA’s admissions director. She said Yisrael Frenkel was an emergency medical technician in Israel during the Second Intifada.
Shami might have been the only AJA student to travel to Houston, but he wasn’t the only one who responded to the disaster.
The school’s environmental club, led by senior Pesach Zeiger with sophomores Tali Feen and Helena Asherian, established a collection of needed supplies, to be carried west with a shipment from the Packaged Good, and hit email and social media to make sure parents and students alike knew about it.
They also planned a dress-down day, during which students could skip the school uniform if they made donations to hurricane relief.
Tali said the students were just fulfilling their duty to help others in need.
Her 7-year-old sister, Noa, also got into the act, raising $83 at a lemonade stand with some fellow students.
Such responses were common at Atlanta’s Jewish schools.
The Davis Academy, for example, is dedicating a portion of its September tzedakah collections toward disaster relief in a way to be determined by students in the Middle School Leadership Training Institute.
The school also has joined others in offering to take in any students displaced from Houston.
The girls at Temima High School organized a bake sale, taking online orders through Sept. 5 for pickup two days later.
The Epstein School had its own dress-down day Sept. 5, collecting cash and gift cards from students who participated, and set up a web page (t.e2ma.net/pages/1801956/3199) to track aid opportunities. Epstein’s sister school in the Conservative movement, Beth Yeshurun Day School, was inundated up to 8 inches deep, forcing the school to look for a temporary home.
Congregation B’nai Torah Rabbi Joshua Heller, Epstein Head of School David Abusch-Magder and others in Atlanta have kept close tabs on Beth Yeshurun through a former Atlantan, Rachel Weber. Supplies for the school can be shipped to 5100 South Willow, Houston, TX 77035, or donations can be made at www.byds.org.
The head of school at Robert M. Beren Academy, Paul Oberman, also has Atlanta ties: He was a top administrator at AJA until taking the Houston job in the spring. Oberman spoke to Young Israel congregants during Shabbat on Sept. 2.
The day schools weren’t the only way for Atlanta students to help their peers in Texas and Louisiana.
After collecting goods for several days, the Packaged Good welcomed more than 400 volunteers to its storefront in Dunwoody Village on Saturday, Sept. 2, to create more than 1,000 care packages, including custom-made cards. The nonprofit organization’s volunteer effort, organized by Executive Director Sam Kurgan with Lisa Jacobson and Joanna Estroff, included education, such as a wall depicting the height of the flood to show children how far they would have been below water.
Packaged Good founder Sally Mundell led a similar packing effort at a family camp at Camp Barney Medintz.
Super Movers left Monday, Sept. 4, with a loaded truck, planning to distribute the relief goods wherever needed along the route to Houston. The Packaged Good and its partners are repeating the effort Saturday, Sept. 9, and Kurgan said they hope for more volunteers without the conflict of a holiday weekend.
Chabad of Atlanta, working with AJA, organized a similar collection and shipment of goods, without the creation of cards and individual care packages. Jeff Wand, bringing food and other supplies, and Malkie Citrin, donating feminine hygiene products, were among the Chabad members dropping off items Friday, Sept. 1. The shipment left Atlanta the next night.
“People lost everything,” Citrin said. “It’s the least I could do.”
Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank encouraged monetary donations by pledging that the Arthur Blank Foundation would match up to $1 million in fan donations to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund.
The Jewish Federations of North America continue to collect money to aid Houston’s Jewish community at www.jewishfederations.org, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta is giving $18,000 from its response fund.
Israel also joined the relief effort. Several Israeli nonprofits, such as IsraAID, iAID and United Hatzalah, sent people to help on the ground, and the Israeli government was organizing a $1 million aid package for Houston’s Jewish community.
Editor’s note: This story originally incorrectly referred to Rachel Weber as a teacher at Beth Yeshurun Day School.