While most of their friends were enjoying the extended Labor Day weekend, 11 undergraduate students from Yeshiva University traveled to flood-ravaged Houston to assist with disaster-relief efforts. Though Hurricane Harvey laid waste to every part of the city, the student delegation focused on the city’s Jewish community, where the catastrophic floods caused particularly intense damage.
Led by Dr. Chaim Nissel, YU’s dean of students, and Linda Stone, director of student events, the student delegation, which included three Houston natives, helped residents clear debris from their homes and salvage whatever possessions they could. For three days, the students ripped up wooden floorboards, damaged sheetrock, and moldy carpets, bleached fixtures contaminated by the toxic floodwaters, removed rotting doors off hinges, and carried destroyed countertops, couches, and dressers to the curb. The students also spent time distributing food, water, and supplies to some of the displaced families.
“In trying times, individuals and communities turn to central institutions for leadership, support, and solidarity. This situation was no different, and Yeshiva University felt a responsibility to contribute to the relief efforts by utilizing its greatest asset—the student body,” said Dr. Nissel. “From the moment we received the green light for the mission, our student leaders were focused on providing the physical and moral support those affected by the destructive flooding would need to get back on their feet.”
Before departing for Houston, the students launched a crowdfunding campaign to help them pay for the supplies they would need. On their GoFundMe page, students asked the public for assistance in purchasing dust masks, safety goggles, work gloves, and other tools for salvage operations in order to make their short time on the ground as impactful as possible without depleting the resources of other relief teams.
“YU provides an extraordinary university experience, one that is grounded in Torah, with challenging academic coursework interwoven with leadership opportunities. Our students’ immediate response to engage in Houston flood relief demonstrates how special and inspiring they really are,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, YU’s vice president for university and community life. “We are so proud to see them so eagerly stepping into leadership roles and becoming agents of change well beyond the confines of their home communities.”
In addition to the salvage effort, some of the students made status-inquiry phone calls to 130 families in the area, while Dr. Nissel, a mental-health professional with expertise in trauma relief and grief processing, ran workshops for congregants of the United Orthodox Synagogue (UOS) and the teachers and guidance counselors at the Beren Hebrew Academy regarding how to best support the city’s children in the aftermath of this tragedy. He also spoke about coping and helping others cope at school-wide assemblies for students.
“This mission was an eye-opening and life-changing experience. I am so grateful that I was given an opportunity to help out in a real hands-on way,” said Lizzy Soclof, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, who is studying at Stern College for Women. “The destruction is devastating, and helping these families throw away all of their belongings, knowing they will need to start over entirely, was very emotional and difficult to comprehend. But the community’s positive attitude through it all was inspiring and taught me a lot about strength, resilience, and kindness.”
Amitai Miller, a Yeshiva College student from Houston, Texas, expressed gratitude to his fellow mission participants for giving so much of themselves to help get his family and friends back on their feet. “It was a really meaningful experience to come back to Houston to help friends and my own family recover from the flood, and I feel indebted to the group of students who came with me to my grandparents’ house to deal with the extensive damage there. I am so thankful to YU for arranging this mission and for allowing me to be a part of it,” said Miller.
YU will continue working with Rabbi Barry Gelman of UOS, the Houston Federation, JFNA, and the Orthodox Union to assess and meet the needs of Houston’s Jewish community. Additional student relief missions are planned for the coming weeks.
Yeshiva University’s flood-relief mission to Houston was sponsored by Neal’s Fund and the University’s Office of Student Life.