How One Houston Synagogue Is Facing Yom Kippur After Hurricane Harvey

Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement that falls on Friday this year, is one of the holiest days on the Jewish religious calendar. It’s meant to be a time set aside for prayer, repentance and spiritual renewal.

For one Jewish synagogue in Houston, Yom Kippur will be a day filled with reflections on the past and particularly focused questions about the future.

The United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston sits just a few hundred yards from Brays Bayou, which flooded by several feet as Hurricane Harvey dropped record rainfall on the city in late August.

The modern Orthodox congregation has weathered its fair share of storms ― the synagogue’s complex has flooded three times in just the last three years. But nothing prepared Rabbi Barry Gelman for the destruction that touched nearly every corner of his synagogue this time. 

The main sanctuary in southwest Houston was flooded after the storm.

The building took in 4 to 5 feet of water, Gelman told HuffPost. All the rooms were affected, including the main sanctuary, classrooms and the rabbi’s office. Prayer books and Bibles had fallen off shelves and were soaked. Chairs were toppled. The Torah scrolls had been taken out of the building before the storm hit, but water had crept close to the ark where the scrolls are typically kept ― missing it by inches.

“It was very sad to walk through,” Gelman told HuffPost about the first time he saw the synagogue after the hurricane. “Primarily because it came with the realization that we’ll likely never see the synagogue in its full beauty like that [again]. We have to figure out what to do next.”

Harvey made landfall near Texas’ Gulf Coast on Aug. 25 as a Category 4 hurricane, eventually dropping 40 to 65 inches of rain in parts of southeast Texas. The storm claimed the lives of at least 50 people across eight counties and caused billions of dollars in damage to homes, businesses and places of worship. 

Harvey was worse than previous storms, Gelman said, because so many congregants’ homes were affected. Many members live near the synagogue, so they can walk to services on Sabbath. At least a third of its 320 families’ homes took in water. Many families, including Gelman’s, had to find temporary lodging in hotels or apartments.

“We’ve been focusing ever since the flood on being positive and first helping people through the initial stages of this, which is very complicated,” he said. “You walk into your home and see 1 or 2 or 5 feet…

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