Houston floods inundate Jewish homes and 2 synagogues

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Two synagogues were damaged in the floods that swept through Houston early this week, inundating homes and businesses, sweeping away cars and leaving at least five people dead.

Houston, America’s fourth-largest city and home to more than 40,000 Jews, many of whom suffered significant damage to their homes, was paralyzed on May 26 when many of the canals, or bayous, that run through the city crested after torrential rains soaked the city. Some 8 to 12 inches of water fell in a matter of hours on ground already saturated by heavy rainfall during the last few weeks.

One of Houston’s major bayous runs alongside North and South Braeswood Boulevard, where two major synagogues are located and many of Houston’s Jews live. A number of residents had to be evacuated by watercraft, including a rabbi emeritus from United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, one of the two synagogues that suffered damage. The other damaged synagogue was the Reform temple Congregation Beth Israel.

Rabbi Joseph Radinsky, rabbi emeritus of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, being rescued from his home photo/courtesy chabad.org

Houston’s JCC also said two of its properties were flooded, including damages to a teen center, racquetball courts and a preschool gym.

No fatalities or major injuries were reported among the Jewish community.

“There’s water in every area of the shul — the main sanctuary, the social hall, the school wing, administrative offices. Luckily our Torahs were higher so they were not affected,” United Orthodox’s current spiritual leader, Rabbi Barry Gelman, reported by phone. Gelman had to flee his home during the rains as floodwaters rose.

“Almost every house in this neighborhood sustained serious flood damages — from 6 to 8 inches to 3 to 4 feet of water in every house,” he said. “This will keep many people out of their homes for months.”

The outpouring of help from the community has been remarkable, Gelman said. As soon as the rain stopped, crews of volunteers from his 350-family synagogue went house to house with canoes and rafts to rescue elderly residents and others stranded by the waters. After the waters receded, a half-dozen Jewish high school boys showed up at Gelman’s house to help clean up and document the losses. A Conservative synagogue nearby offered United Orthodox prayer space, and another Orthodox synagogue in town offered to do the laundry of affected community members, complete with pickup and drop-off service.

“Amid all of this destruction, which is devastating, there is an incredible sense of unity and hope,” Gelman said. “The most important thing is no one got hurt.”

The CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, Lee Wunsch, said on May 27 that the community was still assessing the damage but that the Jewish Family Service of Houston would be the point of contact for community members requiring short-term housing or support.

“This is definitely the worst since Tropical Storm Allison 14 years ago, but the protocol for dealing with it is pretty standard,” Wunsch said. “It would be nice if it would stop raining, though. That just adds to the aggravation.”

This week marked the first time that Congregation Beth Israel, which was built in the 1960s and has 1,600 members, ever flooded, according to Pat Pollicoff, the synagogue’s president. More than a foot of water poured into the sanctuary, and air-conditioning and electrical systems in the sub-basement were flooded.

The synagogue was able to get remediation crews in on May 27 to pump out water and dry the carpets, which should limit the damage.

“The whole area surrounding the temple was so badly hit,” Pollicoff said. “Many members lost homes and cars. It’s a terrible thing for the entire [Houston] community.”