It is difficult not to take into consideration the devastating flood in Houston and its impact on individuals and families during this most auspicious time of Elul.
How can we not think of Unetaneh Tokef? “On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed … who by water, who by fire, … who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, … who will be impoverished and who will be enriched.”
I would like to write an inspiring Rosh Hashanah message, but a more sobering message keeps coming to the fore.
No one would argue that the people of Houston deserved the floodwaters that engulfed the city. It was an act of nature and beyond their control.
Resulting in devastation, immense loss of property, loss of loved ones, sickness and poverty. The recovery for many will take months if not years.
The Almighty in heaven admonishes us in Tanach that poverty and need will never cease from Earth. It is a natural course of events for humankind, just as Mother Nature is a natural course of events on Earth.
In Devarim 15:7-11, Parshat Re’eh, G-d reminds us, “You shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him; you shall lend him his requirement, whatever is lacking him. … For destitute people will not cease to exist within the land.”
We have been inundated with reports, photos and videos of the human suffering in Houston these past few weeks. We are aware, and the nation is answering the call to assist in a myriad of selfless acts of kindness; from monetary donations to physical efforts to help the victims of the hurricane rebuild.
Because we are made aware of the devastation. it is easy to respond quickly and with generosity.
But what about the devastation that occurs as a natural course of events that results in individual suffering, as opposed to suffering on the scale of Houston?
Are we responding to these individuals with the same compassion and generosity as we are for the victims of Hurricane Harvey?
For many years I worked both officially as a board member and unofficially as a volunteer to assist a local organization that provides kosher food assistance and other help to individuals and families in need. As the vice president of fundraising, my name was known, and I received many calls from individuals in need and from those who wished to help.
One evening, a call came in. A recent widow wished to donate her husband’s clothing to a Jewish family in need; did I know whom she should call? She wanted to honor his memory through the donation.
As we spoke, a story came out. Through a flood of tears, I learned that because of the cost of his illness and care, the family savings were depleted, no income was coming in, and she faced losing her home.
Having no family to turn to, she faced the devastation not only of losing her beloved husband alone, but of becoming homeless as well. I said I would see what I could do.
I spoke with my husband and told him we had to do something. We contacted Rabbi Binyomin Friedman of Congregation Ariel, and he gave us a letter testifying to the need so that we could raise money to save her from homelessness.
With the help of my husband and the generosity of the Jewish community, we were able to bring her mortgage current. That gave her time to regroup while she suffered from the recent loss of her husband.
After several months of assistance she was able to stabilize her situation.
I soon discovered that there were other widows in need. My husband and I quietly assisted for several years until it became apparent that to truly help, we needed to become an official nonprofit organization.
Fast-forward to 2016. With the assistance of George Scheer and his wife, Michelle, we received our 501(c)(3) nonprofit designation and launched Tzarkei Naomi Fund, an Atlanta Jewish fund for widows and orphans.
We are commanded numerous times in Tanach to care for the orphan, the widow and the Jew by choice. The Almighty recognized that these special individuals, who have no one to defend their cause, are our special charges.
Think of the orphans and widows in Houston; would we turn our backs on them? G-d forbid. It is not without purpose that the Torah and Haftorah readings leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur remind us to care for these individuals on an ongoing basis.
In Ki Teitzei 24:19-22, we are told, “When you reap the harvest of your field, and you forget a bundle in the field; you shall not turn back to take it; it shall be for the proselyte, the orphan and the widow. When you beat your olive tree, do not remove all the splendor behind you; it shall be for the proselyte, the orphan and the widow. When you harvest your vineyard, you shall not glean behind you; it shall be for the proselyte, the orphan and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore, I command you to do this thing.”
Tzarkei Naomi Fund (Needs of Naomi) is named after Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth, both widows. Ruth, a Jew by choice, is known for her selfless kindness and generosity despite her own dire situation.
I have often wondered whether the word “ruthless,” meaning merciless, unforgiving or heartless, was coined as the antithesis of our heroine Ruth, the biblical paragon of chesed.
May we merit to model the kindness of Ruth and give ongoing support to the precious Naomis in our own communities.
Laura Bogart is the founder of the Tzarkei Naomi Fund (www.tzarkeinaomi.org). In addition to online, donations can be made at Judaica Corner, 2185 Briarcliff Road, Toco Hills, or by mail to Tzarkei Naomi Fund, 1000 Liawen Court, Atlanta, GA 30329.