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Hurricane Harvey Help

09/05/2017 09:27:09 AM


September 5, 2017
by Cantor David Frommer

In November of 2012, I was nearing the end of my overseas deployment to Kuwait, and eagerly looking forward to returning after a year away from home. I was already making plans for a gathering of my friends from Magevet, our Jewish a cappella group at Yale, and the first task was securing a rental property for our get-together. “Hello, is this Martha? I’m interested in renting your house in Far Rockaway for a fun vacation…” “A fun vacation?!” shrieked Martha, from the other end of her cell phone. “My basement is totally flooded and I’ve been living in a shelter for the last three days…” In my dedication to planning an unforgettable reunion, I had inadvertently called to inquire about holiday rentals in the middle of Hurricane Sandy! There are lots of ways we can respond to damaging events, but not all of them are equally helpful. As I learned from personal experience, asking a flood victim for advice in planning a personal vacation is probably not the best way to contribute to relief efforts, but clergy and congregants do have vital roles to play in aiding communities that have been devastated by natural disasters. 

Clergy are few in number, but hopefully we can frame a communal response in a larger context of values and purpose, as well as offer honest reflections on the difficult questions of the human condition. It’s hard to read the words of our Torah portion, Ki Tavo, and not think of our fellow countrymen in Houston and the Gulf Coast: “The life you face shall be precarious; you shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival.” This unsettling forecast in the parsha is threatened as our communal punishment if we fail to obey God’s commandments to create a holy society. On the one hand, our post-Holocaust theology recoils from the idea that innocent deaths could ever be justified by divine vengeance for human shortcomings. On the other hand, as Rabbi Lauren Werber reminds us in the URJ’s Ten Minutes of Torah this week, we also recognize that our negative actions in the world are not without consequences. “What if these curses are not a warning from God, but rather an account of the plagues we create for ourselves when we act immorally?” she asks. I’m pretty sure that Hurricane Harvey was not divinely ordained in response to the personal choices of Texan voters (no matter which presidential candidate they supported) but the larger issue of global warming likely contributed to the storm’s severity, and the carelessness with which the affected municipalities disregarded the need for natural and man-made flood defenses certainly exacerbated its impact. Clergy recall our sacred texts and our history, which teach us to carry the torch of hope into the darkness of suffering and uncertainty, since we have experienced both uniquely from the very origins of our peoplehood.

But if clergy carry that torch alone, then our message of hope is just that, and nothing more. To turn hope into change, we rely on our congregants to provide the strength that comes in numbers. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks teaches, “The religious question is, therefore, not: “Why did this happen?” But “What shall we do?” All across North America, URJ congregants are coordinating their relief efforts by donating gift cards (physical, not electronic) to stores such as Target, Walmart and Home Depot for Houston synagogues to distribute to those in their communities who face the greatest need. URJ Greene Family Camp, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Bruceville, TX, has partnered with Congregation Emanu-El and the Jewish Community Center of Houston to coordinate Hurricane Harvey Houston Day Camp, providing local children with a fun escape from the disruption at home, while allowing their parents to accomplish what is necessary to get their own and others’ lives back in order. The camp itself is also open to displaced storm victims seeking shelter, providing families with housing, food, air conditioning, internet, and electricity and the URJ is urging our congregants to consider a donation to Greene Family Camp to support these efforts. Lastly, we are encouraging everyone to join us at Shabbat services this Friday to offer prayers of safety for those in harm’s way and strength for those who face the biggest losses. As uncertain as we are of why suffering exists, we are deeply certain that it is always best overcome when we stand and face it in community together.

Sat, February 17 2018 2 Adar 5778