Houston community members Daniel Ogorek and Morgan Davis rescuing Rabbi Emeritus Joseph Radinsky in a canoe.
The historic flooding that hit the Houston area on May 26 and devastated the United Orthodox Synagogue and scores of its congregants’ homes had a silver lining, according to its president, Max Reichenthal. “The Jewish community that may be fractured at times came together. It’s like we’re one seamless community,” the owner of a local stell business said.
The building, spiritual home to 325 member families, suffered damage in almost every area of the complex. The majority of the prayer books and chumashim were ruined. At the height of the flood, UOS and much of theWillow Meadows area where it is located were under as much as four feet of water. The building sustained over one million dollars in damage and it is uncertain whether it will be repaired or rebuilt.
For nearly 50 years, UOS has served as a community guiding light for the Orthodox community. Reichenthal, 57, who has lived in Houston for all his life, said this flood was by far the most difficult for everyone. Many congregants lost everything. Some had no flood insurance. “With all the people reeling from the devastation of the flood, worrying about the synagogue is more challenging,” he said.
One person who was up to the challenge is Zach Katz, 17, an incoming senior at the Robert M. Behren Academy, the private Modern Orthodox Jewish primary and secondary school located near the Willow Meadows neighborhoods. His family lost everything in the 2001 Tropical Storm Allison flood. Although he was only three years old, he remembers living with his grandparents for over two years.
“When I saw these kids my age affected by this flood, it gave me perspective. I wanted to make a difference but I wasn’t sure how,” he said.
His sister, Marissa, 24, sparked an idea. The founder of Making a Difference Houston (MAD), an organization that provides teens a way to volunteer for environmental causes, she suggested that her brother rally his fellow high schoolers to aid those in need. Katz asked his friends and was amazed by the positive feedback. “The high school took it as its own responsibility to help out,” he said.
Behren Head of School, Rabbi Ahroni Carmel, supported Katz’s idea, going so far as to waive final exams so the high school students could offer their help full time every day. “What is better than watching your kid give back to the community by helping others?” asked Uri Ghelman, president of Behren and father of student Alex, 16, who arrived home last Monday night exhausted. “It’s heartbreaking but it’s also physical work. The kids are part of a solution,” he said.
Behren Academy high schoolers (l-r) Tania Blanga, Marcos Bentolila, Jared Gonzalez, Henry Sar-Shalom, Alex Ghelman and Jonathan Gross take a break.
Katz learned that it was harder to organize such a large project than he had expected. The group received supplies from the JCC in Houston and, through the school, coordinated teams to go door-to-door offering help to families and the UOS.
For Katz, this experience helped him see first hand that when disaster strikes, it’s not just individuals who are affected, but whole communities. Asked to describe how he felt about it, he recalled hearing the motivational speaker Gian Paul Gonzalez.
“He talked about being ‘All In’ and everyone pitching in. If you really think about it, that’s what this is. You can’t ever quit. When you start something, you have to do everything you want and can do for it,” he said.
Visit uosh.org to donate to the United Orthodox Synagogue relief effort.