tablemag.com/by Rabbi Yitzchok Schmukler
Despite a night of torrential rains throughout Friday night, I made a decision to walk to our Chabad of the Bay Area storefront center early Shabbat morning. “What if even one person decides to show up?” I said to my wife, Malky, “I wouldn’t want them to arrive to a closed door.” One person did come, and that was me. But I knew a Chabad House doesn’t close its doors, certainly not by our own free will.
Shabbat passed peacefully enough with us catching sporadic Hurricane Harvey updates from the radio we jokingly nicknamed bas kol, left on at low volume in the laundry room, for emergency notices.
But then came Motzoei Shabbat, and the driving rain and cracks of thunder were frightening. We slept little. Who could sleep? Were we safe in our home? Our kids wanted to know. Our quaint neighborhood of Clear Creek Village gets its name from the small river that runs alongside it. Would our street flood? What about our neighbor Shlomi and his family? Shlomi is our close friend and the de-facto gabbai at our Chabad House. He, his wife, Samantha, and two small children recently moved into the neighborhood to be within walking distance of the Chabad House. Behind his house are beautiful woods that lead up to the creek. “Everything is okay,” he assured me over the phone. “Remember if it gets bad, you can always come here” I replied.
Sunday. 4:35 a.m. Shlomi texts: “I have water coming in the house. How are you guys?” I reply that we just have some roof leakage, but are otherwise okay. I try to catch a bit more sleep.
5:07 a.m. I get a text: “My floor is covered.”
The jarring emergency alert on our phones goes off again – I jump out of bed. “FLASH FLOOD WARNING IN YOUR AREA.” It’s been that and tornado warnings all night.
I can’t sleep, there’s no way I can sleep. I call Shlomi. We quickly go through contingency plans. Can he evacuate? There’s no way, he says, the water is up to the mailboxes on his street. He’ll have to seek higher ground within his one-story house – but where? The attic. But you can get trapped in the attic.
If Shlomi’s flooding, many others are as well. There is some big devastation. It hits me. People will need physical and emotional support.
6:00 a.m. I launch a WhatsApp group: ‘JBayArea Flood Suprt Grp’. Friends in the community begin to check in. It’s already helping to calm nerves and bring a sense of security. It helps to know you’re not alone.
Malky and I wake up our kids and tell them we are going into rescue and support mode. We are going to be helping people in need. They clear a bedroom and start tidying up. Our kids get it, and I’m proud of them. The thought crosses my mind how the children of Chabad emissaries are such an organic part of what we do.
At Shlomi’s the water level is almost a foot and rising and we’re all worried. 911 is inundated with rescue requests, the instructions are unless it’s life threatening, don’t call. Seek higher ground, go to your roof.
How can I sit passively by? “I’m coming to get you out of there,” I text. “Call 911 and request an evacuation. I will go to my neighbors and try to come to you with vehicles or boats.” I run to my next door neighbor’s house. He and his sons are avid boaters; they will surely have what it takes. Fifteen minutes later Pete, his son Cody and I depart on a rescue mission armed with a pickup truck, life jackets and four kayaks on a hitched trailer. My own custom gear consists of my old Montreal snow boots hastily smeared with Vaseline and two layers of cotton pants to hopefully prevent snake bites in the water. Here I am, a Chabad Lubavitch Canadian-born rabbi setting out on a rescue expedition with his all-American gentile neighbors. I’m taken by their kindness – they didn’t hesitate and jumped right in to help.
We successfully ford through a few blocks of high water and just about to launch the boats when Shlomi calls: a dump truck has shown up and some people with a boat are on his street. They are coming out. Our rescue mission is aborted but we are sure glad he’s safe. Pete drives me over to check on the Chabad Center. It’s above flood waters, but parts of the ceiling have caved in from leaks and there are puddles inside near the doors, but it looks like it will mostly fair OK.
My daughter and I collect Shlomi’s family along with their poodle, Benny, from the emergency shelter they’ve been evacuated to and we set them up in our home. Their cheerful dispositions hide the drama they’ve just experienced.
I had read an article on Shabbat in the book The Early Years about how the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s parents had turned their homes into a refugee relief center during the First World War. If a crisis happened here, I recall thinking, would I be able to step up to plate like that? Their selflessness is a source of inspiration.
Sunday night is threatening to be another night of storms. Will our house still hold its perch above the floodwaters? The creek’s already broken through its so-called 500-year-flood levels. What will happen tonight? For the first time, I feel fear. Malky and I call the kids together and discuss our plan of action if we are compelled to do a midnight evacuation. The kids are a bit afraid but we assure them that this is only a contingency plan so that we can be well prepared.
My thoughts turn to the dedication event we have planned for September 10th to welcome our very first Torah Scroll. My to-do list said this would be the week to get all the final preparations in order. This event means a lot to us and is important that it be a big success. There were signs and food to be ordered and outreach efforts to ensure strong support and a great turnout – now how would we get these things done? What about the beautiful new Torah ark we had just built. It is sitting in our carpenter’s garage waiting to be stained. It’s likely flooded, I’m thinking, as his house sits on a low lying street.
Malky speaks to our 15-year old daughter. She’s supposed to be flying back from camp in Florida tomorrow, but all Houston airports are closed. She was eagerly looking forward to spending a week at home before she goes off to a year of high school out of town. We will take it one day at a time.
I feel grateful that Malky is able to give her the time she needs. Malky and the older kids have been doing an amazing job keeping everyone well fed despite creeping scarcity of food supplies in the pantry. I’m also grateful that our house has so far been spared and that we can help people, and I’m grateful for the strong emotional support we are getting from our family around the world.
We awake Monday to the startling realization that there is one of our friends whom we haven’t heard from since the start of the storm. He lives alone and his house backs to a lake. He’s not answering any of his phones. I feel terrible as I think about the worst – why haven’t I reached out to him earlier? I start putting together plans for a search party. Before we head out, one last try. This time, he answers, thank G‑d!
My phone is abuzz with relief efforts being coordinated by Chabad-Lubavitch out of Houston. Chabad emissaries and community members are coming together, forming committees and taking on responsibilities to provide kosher food, housing and anticipated home recovery help to the thousands of families affected.
One of our community members has a high-profile pickup truck, and three of us head out and spend the afternoon visiting with the evacuees – evacuees? I find it hard to call them that – they are our neighbors! We make the rounds and share an encouraging word and a listening ear. I am awed by the support they are being given, hundreds of people being housed, fed and clothed by numerous volunteers. It is heartening to witness that inner spark of goodness come to the fore at a time like this. Maybe this is the reason we are all here, one of the evacuees tells me.
It’s still raining incessantly and the water on our street is rising. Whatever happens tomorrow, one thing I know, that there will be an ever greater light of goodness and kindness shining.