After Harvey, a new sense of community

After Harvey, a new sense of community

Scattered hurricane victims finding unity at synagogue seders

In a typical year, Houstonians Marisa and Harry Brown spend the weeks before Passover preparing for the seders they host. On the first night, nearly two dozen friends and relatives typically join them at the seder table, and they often host a smaller seder on the second night as well. 

This year is not typical.

Seven months after Category 4 Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, flooding large sections of the city including the heavily Jewish Meyerland neighborhood, many members of Houston’s Jewish population of 63,000 are still displaced, not ready to host their own seders.

The Browns, like many of their Jewish neighbors, will for the first time attend a communal seder. Though they won’t be in their own home, the very fact of the communal seder is a sign of recovery here. That’s because some of the Houston congregations that suffered the most extensive damage in the last August storm have repaired their facilities in time to offer community-wide seders for the first time in several decades.

The Browns, and their 15-year-old daughter, are living in “a tiny” apartment until their home is restored. They will be among some 150 people taking part in a second-night communal seder at United Orthodox Synagogues (UOS), the city’s major Orthodox congregation. UOS was the Houston synagogue most heavily damaged by Harvey.

The UOS seder will give the family a chance “to be together with everyone,” Marisa Brown said. “This raises achdus [unity].”

The communal seder will take place on March 31 in UOS’ Freedman-Levit Sanctuary and adjacent social hall, the only usable part of the one-story, tan-brick building. The rest of the building, including the sanctuary, religious school, and office space, are to be demolished in the next few weeks, to be rebuilt at a to-be-determined site on the synagogue’s four-acre grounds or on higher ground a half-mile away.

For members of UOS, and of Congregation Beth Yeshurun, a half-mile away, the city’s largest Conservative synagogue, Passover this year represents an auspicious time to come together and continue the post-Harvey healing process.

Beth Yeshurun will offer communal seders both nights of yom tov.

With many members of the community lacking space in their temporary quarters to invite guests to a seder, and now separated from some of their friends, a communal seder is significant, said Taryn Baranowski, chief marketing officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. “After Harvey, community has become more important,” she said.

Rabbi David Rosen, longtime spiritual leader of Beth Yeshurun, agreed. 

“Passover means family…it means a connection with the Jewish community,” he said. 

UOS Rabbi Barry Gelman, who grew up in Oceanside, N.Y., and formerly served at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan and the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx, decided to renew the synagogue’s discontinued practice of hosting a second-night communal seder after speaking with members of his congregation. 

Last month UOS congregants bid farewell to the main part of the synagogue building, which was constructed in 1960 following the merger of three congregations. At a Sunday morning ceremony, following Shacharit worship services, some 150 members of the congregation shared memories and photographs.

“Some people just sat in the room and cried,” Rabbi Gelman said.

Since Harvey, all UOS activities have taken place in the elevated Freedman Hall. 

With no architect’s plans in place for the synagogue’s new building, details about a multimillion-dollar fund-raising effort are uncertain.

With roughly 350 member households, UOS describes itself as the largest Orthodox shul in the Southwest. Membership has not decreased since Harvey — no congregants have moved away, Rabbi Gelman said. “People are determined not to let the flood ruin the Jewish

After Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, large numbers of citizens, including members of the Jewish community, left the city. Especially hard hit was congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox synagogue that for a few years shared space a few miles away with Congregation Gates of Prayer, which is Reform, and subsequently put up a new building next to Gates of Prayer.

Harvey gives the ancient story of people leaving their homes a contemporary meaning, said Marisa Brown, a native of Syosset, N.Y., who has lived in Houston for four decades. “The story of the Exodus applies to us in a different context.”

Though Harvey will be on people’s minds at this year’s communal seders, talk of the hurricane will not dominate the evenings, Rabbi Gelman said — he will not add any references to the storm to the traditional readings and rituals.

“You don’t want this to be a flood-themed seder,” he said.

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