When the Jewish Agency offered me the opportunity to join a group aiding in disaster relief and rebuilding communities in Houston, I immediately said yes. With the support of my great supervisor Sarah Cohen Domont at Santa Cruz Hillel, I packed my bag and traveled with them for a week.
It was only when I arrived in Houston that I realized how much harm Hurricane Harvey had caused. Entire neighborhoods were flooded, damaging the Jewish community center, local synagogues and schools. People lost their jobs and workplaces, children were left without school buildings, and families lost their homes.
It was not easy for me to be there at first, to go inside people’s houses and help them throw away their own clothes, furniture, memories and treasured sentimental belongings. Yet, amidst the loss, there was still positivity. Hannah, an elderly woman, welcomed me with a big smile and told me that as long as they are healthy, they are happy; that they want to push through this. So we worked together, cleaning and trying to salvage whatever we could from the homes. Ironically, even while standing in the ruins of a house, Hannah and the people we met made me feel at home.
We also worked with children at the Harvey day camp, a place for kids who were victims of the hurricane. They were always happy and naive, like only kids could be. I fell in love with them at once and they made me feel like a child again. Being around these amazing kids filled me with hope.
On our last day in Houston, we volunteered at the Gulf Meadows Church of Pastor Becky Keenan, and it was heartwarming to meet a community that is a true friend of both the local Jewish community and the State of Israel. We helped dispose of trash in flooded nearby homes, and served warm meals to those who were left with limited access to food.
I think that the most difficult thing for me was to see families who so quickly lost everything they had, even food. But, knowing that there are communities in Houston who support one another unconditionally made it easier to be near, and made me want to be a part of that compassionate network.
Being a Jewish Agency shlicha, I felt prepared to handle such an experience mostly because I had great role models. Tali Lifchitz and Moshe Alfisher, the leaders of our group, were incredibly passionate about the work we were doing and were always professional as well. I felt welcome to talk to them about my emotions and how to deal with difficult situations, and they would always have the perfect advice for me.
I was thrilled to see so many volunteers present, coming from across the United States as well as overseas from Israel. I’m so appreciative of the warm and welcoming Houston community, Herut Gez and Michael Plotkin who connected us with the people in need, and Lori Acto from the Houston federation who kindly welcomed us into her home.
I feel very fortunate to have had a chance to practice tikkun olam (the Jewish value of repairing the world) through helping the Jewish and Houston communities. Despite how hard it was to see their suffering, I came back stronger and with a newfound hope, knowing that as long as people help each other no matter what happens, the world will always be a better place.
By Hadas Perez
Hadas Perez is a Jewish Agency/Hillel International Israel Fellow at Santa Cruz Hillel.