Houston Jews Help Katrina Victims As Part of Their ‘obligation As Jews’

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Houston’s Jewish community has been instrumental in the relief effort for Katrina’s victims, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Joe and Joy Kaplan are two of the many Jewish Houstonians who have put in hundreds of volunteer hours helping non-Jewish evacuees from the Gold Coast since the disaster struck.

Members of Operation Compassion, an interfaith initiative responsible for food and humanitarian services at the George R. Brown Convention Center and other shelters across the city, the Kaplans said that their participation in the relief effort is nothing out of the ordinary.

“We’re just regular people who want to help in any way we can,” explained Joe Kaplan during his eight-hour shift on Saturday.

Under the auspices of Houston Mayor Bill White, the convention center has been converted into a two-story, temporary city, outfitted with most amenities, including a fully operational hospital and laundry service provided by the Hilton Hotel next door.

Kaplan, one of the 750 volunteers scheduled to work that day, said he spent the morning directing evacuees to places they needed to go — where to get breakfast, take a shower, find medical care and transportation. He also spent time visiting with several of the 15,000 residents, listening to their stories, playing with children and offering messages of hope.

Houston’s Jewish community has also been working to ensure that its new Jewish neighbors from New Orleans are comfortable and provided for.

Current estimates are that more than half of the Crescent City’s Jewish community is now living in Houston, and these 5,000 individuals have been blessed with food, clothing, transportation, medical and financial assistance, religious and educational services, and housing.

Non-Jewish evacuees also need help, as Diane and Stephen “Skip” Brezner can attest.

According to Diane Brezner, the local Jewish federation learned that a non-Jewish employee of the National Council of Jewish Women’s New Orleans office was staying at the Reliant Arena shelter along with her family. Local Jewish residents volunteered to pick up Nettie Thompson and her husband, two daughters and three grandchildren and find them more comfortable living conditions.

“This entire ordeal has been heartbreaking for us all,” Diane Brezner said. “And we’re just glad to be able to help — black, white, green — anybody who’s in need. That’s our obligation as Jews.”

The Thompsons first were taken to the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. There the children took showers and were given new clothes. The family was then taken to the Brezners’ house, where they were given food and places to sleep. The adults were able to wash themselves, change into clean clothes, and relax for the first time in more than a week

The next day, the Thompsons secured a home of their own, where the first month’s rent was paid by the Jewish community.

Besides having food, water, clean clothing and a roof overhead, Houston’s newest residents repeatedly have said that getting their children into school is the next step in maintaining a sense of normalcy in Katrina’s aftermath.

The principal of the Parker Elementary School, Carol “Cappy” Selig, is one of several Jewish educators in the Houston Independent School District who has done everything in her power to help evacuees from southern Louisiana and Mississippi achieve this goal. Parker, a top music elementary school in the district, operates at or near capacity each year.

“We received our first student from New Orleans” on Sept. 1,” Selig said. “And even though we have a waiting list for Parker that is a mile long, I didn’t have the heart to turn this child and her family away.”

Parker has accepted eight more students and even has coordinated with other schools in the district to find the best fits for individual families in need.

According to Selig, all nine families who have enrolled their children at Parker have been very emotional. “And each time a parent has cried in my office, I’ve burst into tears along with them. This experience has been so devastating, especially for the children. I’m just glad that there is something we can do to help,” she said.

Other Jewish members of the community are also pitching in.

The Houston photographer Jay Hamburger and his 9-year-old daughter, Rachel, prepared and served meals for several hundred evacuees from New Orleans.

Nicknamed the “Egg Man,” the Houston resident has been cooking and serving 200 hot meals every Sunday for the past 15 years to the local homeless population.

As Houston soon became home for tens of thousands of evacuees from the hardest-hit communities, a Houston police officer informed Hamburger that there were three motels near the downtown area that were full of Katrina’s victims desperately in need of food.

So, in addition to his regular Sunday routine, Hamburger decided to make an additional outing on Sept. 6, and he and several volunteers arrived at the motels’ doorsteps bearing special gifts.

“I’m not the one who made this happen,” Hamburger said. “It’s the people who support me by donating their time, effort and, of course, food. I see myself as a hollow bone — a channel used to get help to people. You see, we all make a choice on how much of a channel we can be, and I’m just lucky to have people who choose to help others as much as they can. And, I’m just a vehicle for it.”

Like they do every Sunday, “Hamburger’s Heroes” cooked 20 gallons of gourmet vegetarian stew. They also prepared several pans of cornbread and bought sliced meat and an assortment of epicurean breads. Rather than take his operation to a conventional shelter, Hamburger thought it important to help those evacuees who ended up elsewhere.

“It’s so easy for people to fall through the cracks in times of great crisis, which is why I make it a point to look for people off the radar screen,” Hamburger explained. “So far, I don’t think we’ve had large numbers of evacuees join the local homeless population, but, unfortunately, I fear that this might change in the coming weeks.

Hamburger said that he will continue to serve special meals to those who fled Hurricane Katrina and is on the lookout for individuals and families who may become pigeonholed along the margins of society. He also has made available two rental houses for anyone in need.

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