Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement that falls on Friday this year, is one of the holiest days on the Jewish religious calendar. It’s meant to be a time set aside for prayer, repentance and spiritual renewal.
For one Jewish synagogue in Houston, Yom Kippur will be a day filled with reflections on the past and particularly focused questions about the future.
The United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston sits just a few hundred yards from Brays Bayou, which flooded by several feet as Hurricane Harvey dropped record rainfall on the city in late August.
The modern Orthodox congregation has weathered its fair share of storms ― the synagogue’s complex has flooded three times in just the last three years. But nothing prepared Rabbi Barry Gelman for the destruction that touched nearly every corner of his synagogue this time.
The building took in 4 to 5 feet of water, Gelman told HuffPost. All the rooms were affected, including the main sanctuary, classrooms and the rabbi’s office. Prayer books and Bibles had fallen off shelves and were soaked. Chairs were toppled. The Torah scrolls had been taken out of the building before the storm hit, but water had crept close to the ark where the scrolls are typically kept ― missing it by inches.
“It was very sad to walk through,” Gelman told HuffPost about the first time he saw the synagogue after the hurricane. “Primarily because it came with the realization that we’ll likely never see the synagogue in its full beauty like that [again]. We have to figure out what to do next.”
Harvey made landfall near Texas’ Gulf Coast on Aug. 25 as a Category 4 hurricane, eventually dropping 40 to 65 inches of rain in parts of southeast Texas. The storm claimed the lives of at least 50 people across eight counties and caused billions of dollars in damage to homes, businesses and places of worship.
Harvey was worse than previous storms, Gelman said, because so many congregants’ homes were affected. Many members live near the synagogue, so they can walk to services on Sabbath. At least a third of its 320 families’ homes took in water. Many families, including Gelman’s, had to find temporary lodging in hotels or apartments.
“We’ve been focusing ever since the flood on being positive and first helping people through the initial stages of this, which is very complicated,” he said. “You walk into your home and see 1 or 2 or 5 feet of water, and stuff is ruined. It’s paralyzing and demoralizing.”
Because the hurricane hit just a few weeks before the start of the busy High Holidays, synagogue leaders needed to scramble to figure out how to prepare the building for Rosh Hashanah on Sept. 20.
Thankfully, they had help. Gelman said that his congregation received both financial and physical donations from volunteers and wellwishers from around the country. Neighboring congregations donated chairs. Publishing companies and other synagogues donated prayer books. Youth groups pitched in and Gelman’s rabbinical colleagues from other states flew in to help for a few days.
Some people even showed up at the rabbi’s house.
“There was a guy in my house cutting out wet bookshelves and sheetrock from Hawaii. I didn’t know him. He just called me and said, ‘Do you need help? I’ll be at your house in 10 minutes,’” the rabbi told HuffPost. “A wonderful group of Mormons helped me get wet furniture and other items out of my house right after the flood.”
As Rosh Hashanah drew near, Gelman said he was focusing on telling his congregants not to succumb to quick solutions and to be thoughtful about what the future holds.
UOS was able to clear the water out of a social hall in its complex that was slightly more elevated than its main sanctuary. On Rosh Hashanah, the congregation met there to observe the holiday.
“It was very emotional,” Gelman said. “It was wonderful to be able to be all together, but there are so many members of our congregation who are still affected.”
As Yom Kippur approached, he said that UOS will have to think deeply about the congregation’s next steps. They are holding services in the social hall for now, but the future remains unclear, Gelman said.
“The big question mark that we have is what’s next for our community and our synagogue, as this neighborhood has a tendency to flood. What are we going to do to avoid that in the future?”
In the meantime, he’s trying to focus on the good.
“People have responded with great strength and great resilience, and our community, which is very united and very tight, was able to provide wonderful support for the members whose houses were flooded,” Gelman said. “To me that’s a testament to the strength of a faith community, and a community bound by thousands of years of tradition and common history.”