An inside look into keeping kosher during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey
With Chanukah just around the corner, we are reminded of the beautiful message the menorah and the holiday teach us, that “a little light dispels a lot of darkness.” Nothing could be truer in our own lives, as we witnessed as a country during Hurricane Harvey in Houston just a few months ago in August.
I sat down with Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff, Program Director of Chabad of Houston, and co-director, together with his wife Chanie, of Chabad of Uptown. He also led the Chabad Harvey Relief program, one of the projects included partnering with 1Mitzvah, which brought 50 Chabad Rabbis from across the United States to help Houston’s Jewish inhabitants in the aftermath of the storm.
Rabbi Chaim explained to me that while Houston is known for flooding, in the last year 3 years they have been hit harder than usual. According to the National Weather Service, Houston has been hit hard by a 500-year flood for the last 3 years. Rabbi Chaim joked that it should make him over 1500 years old! (a 500-year flood means a 1 in 500-year chance of that amount of rain).
While the citizens of Houston are no strangers to flooding, the overall attitude in the city was that the storm would blow over, like it always did. Only once the storm was imminent and the worst-case scenario was predicted did the community begin to realize that this would be different. While they were emotionally prepared for impact, there was little they could do to practically plan ahead.
When the rains came, the impact was immediate. All food stores and businesses, kosher and non-kosher alike, closed their doors. Rabbi Chaim explained that even if a store didn’t have too much flooding, it still could not open because all the managers and staff were trapped and stranded in their own homes, and the streets were flooded. No one could go anywhere. One store even decided it could not handle the financial burden of rebuilding and closed permanently.
The Grocery Manager in the Kosher Department at Houston’s Kroger said that while the store was only closed for two days, it was long enough to do an incredible amount of damage. The store lost power, and ALL perishables had to be thrown out. City dump trucks came and they had to throw out many pallets of food. It was incredibly sad to see all that food go to waste.
Only one store was able to briefly open up, and within a few hours the shelves were bare. Grocery stores, and especially kosher food stores, were nonexistent in Houston and something needed to be done, immediately.
Chabad of Houston rose to the occasion, and immediately mobilized the #ChabadHarveyRelief command center. They set up 2 locations where meals were mass produced, under the direction of the rebbetzins and their troops of volunteers. One location was Aishel House, the “Bikur Cholim” home where people stay long term when needing medical attention in Houston. The 50 shluchim who visited Houston stayed at Aishel House as well. The other location was the Lubavitch Center of Houston – led by Rabbi Shimon and Chiena Lazaroff. The headquarters then oversaw the serving and delivering of 300-600 meals each day for approximately two weeks.
More than 10 shuls in the greater Houston and surrounding areas were involved in meal preparation for displaced families with too many numbers to even count. Rabbi Chaim recounted how many organizations stepped up, regardless of affiliation, and gathered together to rent and donate enormous truckloads of supplies. He said it was incredibly overwhelming and moving to see how much food people sent; strangers to the Houston community, without batting an eye, stepped up and did what needed to be done, just because they knew the Jews of Houston needed their help.
“Texas Kosher BBQ” a BBQ food truck came down from Dallas and set up shop at the Beren Academy, close to the neighborhood that had been impacted by the storm the most. Over 100 children were essentially homeless and without a school. The food truck settled for a week and served over 500 meals a day.
A team of dedicated shluchim, shluchos, and community members directed the volunteer intake and dispatch from the Chabad Harvey Relief command center, and coordinated the 1Mitzvah #ChabadHarveyRelief rabbis, giving them each a route. Off they went, delivering daily meals either at their homes or where they were displaced, such as shelters and hotels. Pictures went viral of the rabbis in their long beards (my father in law and brother in law included!) schlepping large pieces of debris from destroyed homes, helping to clear some of the destruction. Each of these rabbis came home after a week of doing all they could, with an inspired tale to bring home to their own communities and continued sharing the light that they witnessed so clearly in Houston. As the famous saying goes, “we rise by lifting others.”
The Katz family* moved to Houston the week before Hurricane Harvey hit. Uncomfortable with the weather reports, Mr. Katz decided to rent an Airbnb in Fort Worth TX (a 6-hour drive) for the weekend, to play it safe. By Motzei Shabbos, friends were sending him pictures of the river in front of his street, leaving the Katz family stranded, unable to return home.
Mr. Katz managed to get onto a flight to New York, to be able to work while his family remained behind in the rented space in Fort Worth. While in New York, the reports of the dire food situation began to arrive. At first, Mr. Katz thought that he would simply bring a few boxes back to Houston, but he quickly realized that much more would be necessary, and so #ConvoyofHope was born.
It began with Mr. Katz’s friends in Brooklyn organizing a truck, but donations were few and far between, and sporadic. Within 24 hours, Mr. Katz’s phone was flooded with messages, calls, emails, and texts of people that wanted to help and donate pallets of food. CEO’s from top kosher food distributors and providers were arranging drop offs in Crown Heights and they were on their way to filling up a refrigerated 53-foot semi. Lecheiris, a chesed organization from Brooklyn, called Mr. Katz offering their help and support. Amazingly, within a day they had received donations to fill the enormous truck and a second 26 foot truck brought by Lecheiris, totalling over 30 pallets in 30 hours.
Over the next day, more and more organizations and people reached out to Mr. Katz, wanting to help. Mr. Katz told me that he was just amazed to see so many people and companies come together and do whatever needed to be done. Dozens of kosher food companies, such as Quality Frozen, Kedem, Mehadrin, Kitov, Ungar’s, Supreme Star/Kadouri Div. of Star Snacks, A&H, Chopsie’s, Bodek, Snack Delite, Dyna Sea, Amnon’s, Aufschnitt, Marzipan Bakery, Ceres Juice, Grab 1 Bars, Pereg, Leiber’s, Yerek, Manischewitz, Osem, Zoglo, and Hod Lavan reached out to help. Some CEOs even said that they called their own competitors to join in and get everyone involved to help. When they needed to find truck drivers to bring the food to Houston, volunteers from Lecheiris showed up, saying they all took naps and are ready to drive!
All in all, 11 trucks from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, and Florida were sent, “flooding” Houston with supplies, food and love from the extended Jewish Family. In another example of Hashgocha Protis, Mr. Katz’s office in Houston had not yet been set up, and they were able to use the warehouse he has been temporarily working from as the location to stage the supply distribution.
Mr. Katz ended off our interview with one last tidbit. He said that they had such a surplus of supplies that Houston was able to send a truck to Florida when they got hit by Hurricane Irma and repay the kindness shown to them! Additionally, when Puerto Rico got hit by Hurricane Maria, Mr. Katz still had pallets of MRE – “Meals Ready to Eat”. With Chabad of Puerto Rico in a desperate situation, miraculously Chabad of Houston found the last United Airlines flight on the tarmac ready to fly and managed to get 3 pallets of MREs onto their flight to help the Jews in Puerto Rico.
What Can We Do to Help the Houston Today?
I asked Rabbi Chaim about how Houston is doing today. Surely, they are “back to normal”. He laughed and said they were far from it. The goal now, he explained, is long-term recovery. Some people had insurance, many don’t. For many, FEMA was denied. He said the best thing at this point, is donations of gift cards. He said many people won’t be able to move back into their homes for at least 6 months to a year. He knows many families who are cramped into small apartments and sleeping on air mattresses.
Currently, Rabbi Chaim is working on distributing money in the form of tuition assistance for the local Jewish Day Schools. So far they have distributed $200,000 in tuition assistance.
With Chanukah coming up, it is quite easy to make the correlation between a city literally shrouded in darkness, yet this powerful and tremendous light was felt by the entire country streaming from the beautiful acts of kindness and healing in Houston. I wondered if Chabad of Houston had any special Chanukah plans for this year, and Rabbi Chaim said that Chabad is behind schedule! Due to the storm and the city still in recovery mode, many of their usual Chabad programming and community events are still being planned and they are determining what they will be able to do in the current situation. Preparing for Chanukah has been harder for them this year, but just like the storm brought out the beauty in Houston’s inhabitants, there is no doubt that the lights of Chanukah will shine brighter than ever this year.
As Houston continues to heal from the storm, we are reminded of the menorah, the one small flame, dispelling the surrounding darkness. Rabbi Chaim shared that the amount of kindness that they have been “flooded” with, has uplifted the Jewish community’s spirits in ways that are beyond description. People around the country (and around the world) don’t even realize the indelible impact their small donations had on Jewish Houston.
You can still help the Jewish community in Houston by donating at www.ChabadHouston.com/Relief and help dispel the darkness.
Duby Litvin is a freelance writer from Louisville, Kentucky. She is most known for her annually published Pesach planning guide, “Dubys Pesach Lists” which helps families prepare and organize for the Yom Tov in a stress-free and easy manner. Duby also has a small Kosher bakery and is involved various programming with Chabad of Kentucky.
*Name changed for privacy