NEW YORK — Of all the homes in all the flood ravaged neighborhoods in Houston, the group of Jewish volunteers from New Jersey walked into the Khourys’.
“The first thing I heard when we arrived was the accent of the mother. She hugged the rabbi who was wearing his black yarmulke and tzitzit. ‘We’re Palestinian. You’re Jewish. This is the best country in the world! This is America!,’” said Scott Wisotsky, describing the moment he and his fellow good Samaritans arrived at Victor and Mary Khoury’s home.
Wisotsky had traveled to Houston with the New Jersey chapter of Mesorah, a network for young Jewish professionals. The chapter’s director, Rabbi Yehoshua Lewis, led the group of 11 volunteers to help with flood recovery in homes destroyed by Hurricane Harvey.
Now back in New York, Wisotsky said the team is still amazed that of all the homes they could have been placed in — the August 25 hurricane damaged over 100,000 houses in the city — they ended up helping Palestinian Americans. For many of the Jewish volunteers it was the first time they ever stepped foot inside a Palestinian family’s home.
“It was about two cultures coming together. Why should it take a disaster to bring us together? Americans, Jews, Palestinians — we’re all people,” Wisotsky said.
“It was rising very fast and we ran upstairs. We had to be evacuated by the Coast Guard in the morning. Everything was floating in dirty water and sewage,” Khoury said speaking with The Times of Israel by phone.The Khourys, who live in the neighborhood of Fleetwood, survived three hurricanes before Harvey. Each storm came and went without a solitary leak. The night of the storm they sat in their first-floor living room when water started rushing in, said Mary Khoury.
The Khourys’ neighborhood lies between two reservoirs, and the Army Corps of Engineers released water from both around 2 a.m. on August 28. There was concern a dam failure would submerge half of Houston.
The entire first floor of the Khourys’ home was submerged in standing water for two weeks.
“In the blink of an eye we lost everything. The furniture, things we collected, photos, books. It’s difficult. I am not 30 anymore. I am retired; my husband is retired. When I go to the house I become numb. I don’t even have a single plate,” Khoury said. “What can we do? It’s not only me. It’s everybody.”
Wisotsky was watching news coverage of the storm from the cozy confines of his Upper West Side apartment when he felt overcome with the urge to do something — anything.
The group flew out of Newark Airport 6 a.m. Sunday, September 17. Just under four hours later the wheels hit the tarmac in Houston. Wisotsky looked out the window. Maybe Houston didn’t have a problem, he recalled thinking. The airport looked fine.He soon connected with Mesorah. Once in Houston, the group worked under the direction of the non-profit NECHAMA – Jewish Response to Disaster.
It was hard for Wisotsky to believe the storm caused an estimated $160 billion in damage. Driving through downtown they passed some carpets and furniture on the city sidewalks, but nothing hinted of the ruin to come.
After they disembarked the group got their bags and picked up their rental cars. Rather than go to the hotel, they drove directly to the first address on their lists. Even as they drove, Wisotsky said they joked a bit about how normal everything looked.
Then they turned off the exit and the enormity of the disaster hit them.
“Imagine everything you own sitting on the lawn. Piles of books, photo albums, couches, clothes, nails, sheetrock and wires. All of it outside; on the street. Blocks upon blocks of this,” said Rabbi Lewis.
Like Wisotsky, this was the first time Lewis volunteered to help with natural disaster cleanup.
“You’re jumping into peoples’ lives, helping during a very difficult time. I was surprised how much they needed the help,” he said.
Wearing protective goggles, facemasks and gloves, the group stripped moldy dry wall and hauled mud-caked boards out of the house. They also helped sort through the Khourys’ personal belongings to see what could be salvaged and what had to be thrown away. It was close work.
As they worked the Khourys and the volunteers talked. They spoke about food and culture, politics and the conflict. Victor Khoury told them it wasn’t a coincidence that an organization of Jews was sent to help with his home. As a restaurant owner in Russia in the early 1990s, Khoury funneled money out of the country for three Jewish families who weren’t allowed to take it with them when they immigrated, he said.“I have really good friends and I’ve never been into their personal stuff they way I was here. This is a complete stranger and you’re going through their personal stuff. Letters, baby photos, wedding albums,” Wisotsky said.
Mary Khoury said she and her husband feel like their life came full circle. Palestinians helping Jews; Jews helping Palestinians.
“The group was so adorable,” she said. “I bless them for coming from New Jersey to help. I posted all about it on Instagram; I have followers in Jordan and Kuwait. Never did one of my posts get so many ‘likes.’ This is the way it should be. People are people,” she said.