Rolling up their sleeves



September 8, 2017

Four Jewish Agency Israel Fellows to Hillel and two shlichim from the West Coast took their compassion and generosity to Houston in an effort to help victims of Hurricane Harvey. The volunteers representing four local Hillel organizations – UCLA Hillel, UC Santa Cruz Hillel, Hillel Foundation of Orange County and Greater Portland Hillel – learned that the Jewish Agency for Israel was organizing an aid delegation and they felt a duty to be on the ground helping. Since arriving in Texas earlier this week, the group has been busy clearing debris and packing and safeguarding valuables from several evacuated homes owned by elderly Jewish residents in Houston.

Moshe Alfisher, Jewish Agency Israel Fellow to Hillel West Coast coordinator, has been keeping a daily journal of the group’s activities, and he it shared with Hillel International.

After arriving in Houston, according to Alfisher, the Israel Fellows went directly to the Jewish Federation. There, they were assigned to help an elderly Jewish couple, Sarah and Uri, whose home was ravaged by Harvey’s torrential downpours and the ensuing flooding. On their way to Sarah and Uri’s home, they were shocked at the scale of the devastation – great heaps of furniture, clothes, carpets and other possessions that once filled homes lay ruined by the roadside.

Once they arrived, they packed up boxes of valuables that were rescued, and were forced to throw out other items the floor waters had destroyed. “It was sad to go through the belongings of people that could be our grandparents, and decide what should be thrown away and what could be saved,” Alfisher wrote. 

The Fellows later visited the home of an area man named David. After meeting him, they learned that he had just moved into his new Houston home a few weeks before the hurricane. As a result of the flooding, his new home is now a total loss. The Fellows were “horrified” when David told them he and his wife waited 12 hours in water up to their waists for a rescue.

The group later traveled to another damaged home for another round of packing and removing belongings. “Every photo album and picture told a story about their life, making this work harder and very emotional,” Alfisher wrote. “We were talking amongst ourselves about how family and friends are the most important things, more than any object.”

The Fellows also volunteered at a URJ-affiliated camp set up for some 300 children whose homes may have been destroyed or damaged. While the children play, Alfisher explained, parents are freed up to focus on arranging new housing or returning to work. “It was unbelievable and sad listening to the kids talk between about the damages of their homes and their friends homes,” Alfisher said.

Rice University later hosted the Fellows for a lunch activity run by Huston Hillel, allowing the Fellows an opportunity to tell students and staff about their experiences volunteering.

To wrap up the group’s week of volunteering, the Israelis helped clear rubble at the home of a congregant of Gulf Meadows church in Houston, and served food to church members in need.