HOUSTON (JTA) – In the wake of Hurricane Ike, members of the oldest Jewish community in Texas are scattered throughout the state.
Ike, the category 2 storm that consumed more than 70 percent of the Gulf of Mexico and ripped through coastal Texas last week, made landfall at Galveston Island shortly after 2 a.m. Sept. 13.
Barreling northeastward with winds exceeding 100 miles per hour, the hurricane tore through greater Houston an hour later, leaving 4 million homes – and an area the size of the state of New York – without electricity and in some cases without running water.
The storm took more than 12 hours to pass over southeast Texas, forcing much of the Jewish community of greater Houston to evacuate to nearby Austin, Dallas and San Antonio. Those who stayed were left to clear debris from streets, drain their flooded homes, and help distribute food and water to those in need – and to assess the damage.
Ike caused nearly $20 billion worth of destruction. The Jewish community reported no fatalities or serious injuries.
In Houston, synagogues and Jewish infrastructure seem to have gone largely unscathed. Aside from minor water damage, most all Jewish infrastructure was left relatively intact. The area’s Jewish day schools suffered only slight damage from wind and rains, and as of Monday, classes had resumed at area day schools and most religious schools.
Houston’s Seven Acres Senior Care Services became a temporary headquarters for the area’s Jewish federation and Jewish Family Service, neither of which had power after the storm. As of Tuesday, the federation and city’s two JCCs were still without power.
Galveston, the area hit hardest by the storm, seems to have suffered more damage.
“Galveston is a cesspool right now,” the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, Lee Wunsch, told the Jewish Herald-Voice of Houston on Sept. 16. “The sewage system isn’t working and parts of the island are still under water.”
Wunsch is heading the community’s Emergency Response Team, which was formed after hurricanes Katrina and Rita three years ago.
Galveston, the oldest Jewish community in Texas, has about 350 Jewish families, most of whom are now scattered across Texas, according to rabbis from the area.
Not much was known about the city’s Temple B’nai Israel, the oldest Reform congregation in Texas, as of late last week. The congregation, which has a membership of about 180 member families, sits near the sea wall in a neighborhood that is prone to flooding.
The other active synagogue on the island, Congregation Beth Jacob, has about 80 families.
Access to the island continues to be limited to emergency responders, and only recently have property owners been allowed to return to their homes for several hours at a time to survey the damage. The Jewish cemeteries in Galveston are believed to be in bad shape.
“Many of the Jews who presently live on the island have relatives in other parts of Texas,” B’nai Israel’s Rabbi Jimmy Kessler said. “I understand most of them evacuated. A few of them are still on the island, but the communication is sporadic. The homes of at least two Jewish families burned when transformers blew during the storm.”
Wunsch said the Houston federation would help the Galveston congregations find alternative venues for the upcoming High Holidays services
The federation helped secure blankets and bed sheets for Camp Young Judaea, which is near Wimberley. Following the storm, the camp hosted 60 non-Jewish children who were evacuated from a Galveston institution for troubled youth.
In Houston, the B’nai B’rith Goldberg Towers, which houses some 474 elderly residents, many of whom are Jews from the former Soviet Union, suffered the heaviest damage of that area’s Jewish institutions.
The roof of one tower was torn off, causing massive water and wind damage to the eighth and ninth floors. The residents of the 36 apartments on those floors were relocated after the storm to lower floors, family members’ homes and Seven Acres.
Residents of a federal housing project were left without adequate food supplies, but the Houston federation helped secure two days worth of ready-to-eat meals from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Houston Food Bank delivered hundreds of cases of food and bottled water on Sept. 15. Also, the Houston Chabad Lubavitch set up barbecue pits outside the Goldberg Towers and provided hot kosher meals. The Texas A&M Chabad supplied tarps to cover the damaged floors.
Pearl’s Soul Food Cafe also donated barbecue dinners.
On Sept. 16, Congregation Brith Shalom helped deliver 1,000 kosher Shabbat meals to Houston families, selling them for $30 apiece at their synagogue.
Those in Texas say the hurricane and its aftermath have brought the community together.
West University resident Dee Dee Dochen hosted several families in her home.
“It’s like a bed-and-breakfast,” she said. “We’re serving large meals to large groups of friends every day and night, eating up everybody’s freezer items, so they don’t go to waste.
“The silver lining, I suppose, is that the hurricane has really helped bring the neighborhood together. Instead of people running off to check their e-mail or watch TV after dinner, we’re forced to actually talk to each other, and it’s been really wonderful.”
In Galveston, Rabbi Kessler is looking forward to rebuilding his town, which was the Jewish center of Texas in its heyday before a storm in 1900 devastated the commercial center and killed more than 6,000 residents.
“For most of my career I’ve taught, preached and written that human beings are created in God’s image. What we possess are just things,” he said. “I am confident that B’nai Israel will still be there as a synagogue when this is all over and the Jewish community will continue to function on the island.”
Kessler said he had conversations with rabbis in the New Orleans area.
“Their communities have come back – and come back stronger,” he said, talking about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “The people who were willing to stay were committed to the community and felt a need to preserve its existence.”