Still Reeling From Ike


Galveston, Texas — Shabbat services in a synagogue lobby. Volunteers fixing cemetery gravestones. A Jewish federation budget meeting.

Those are the signs of damage, and of recovery, in Southwest Texas three months after Hurricane Ike, the Category 2 storm that ranked as the worst to strike the United States this year and the third worst ever.

In inland Houston, and in coastal sites like Galveston and Oak Island, some of the signs of Ike are still visible — the six-month renovation project under way at the B’nai B’rith Goldberg Towers senior residence in Houston, a similar cleanup at Congregation Beth Jacob here, and the volunteer crews at Galveston’s pair of Jewish cemeteries.

Houston’s Jewish community, whose buildings suffered minor wind and flooding damage, “has basically recovered,” says Lee Wunsch, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston and head of the Jewish community’s Emergency Response Team. A federation budget committee is meeting this month to assess the storm’s effect on the delayed 2009 fund-raising campaign.

All of Houston’s Jewish institutions — with the exception of the iconic Three Brothers kosher bakery, slated to reopen within a month — “are back up and running,” Wunsch says. “Galveston is another story.”

Galveston, home to the state’s oldest extant Jewish community, took the brunt of Ike. Most buildings suffered extensive damage. The University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston’s biggest employer, has subsequently laid off 3,800 workers, imperiling the city’s financial future. Parts of Galveston today still look like New Orleans post-Katrina, with boarded-up businesses and fallen trees, piles of debris and billboards for construction companies that ask “Got Mold?”

Congregation B’nai Israel, which held High Holy Days services on its back patio after Ike, has seen a few congregants move away, but most are determined to stay, says Rabbi Jimmy Kessler. “The mood is very upbeat.”

Nearby Beth Jacob, which suffered heavier damage, buried two pickup truck-loads of damaged religious items, and now prays in its front lobby, took a symbolic step of confidence after Ike. The lay-led synagogue engaged Rabbi Todd Doctor, a Houston educator who had occasionally led services and taught classes, to conduct Shabbat services every week. Attendance since the storm has increased, he says.
Volunteers from Jewish organizations take part in the renovation effort nearly every week at Beth Jacob, at Galveston’s Jewish cemeteries, and at other venues in Oak Island. The list of participants includes a Dallas day school, UJA-Federation of Westchester, Houston’s Beth Yeshurun synagogue and Beren Academy day school, a Bnei Akiva youth group from Houston and the New Jersey Region of NCSY, Chabad, Yeshiva University and the Minneapolis-based Nechama disaster response organization.

“A lot of people are helping,” Rabbi Doctor says. “The response has been overwhelming.”

Galveston’s 300-household Jewish community uses the 1900 hurricane that flooded the island and took more than 6,000 lives, as a benchmark of rebuilding, says Robert Levy, a seventh-generation Galvestonian who works as an attorney in Houston. “Galveston has gone through major challenges in the past.” Its citizens “are very resilient,” he says. “They still stay.”