Fleet of Jewish Agency-Owned Trucks Drive to Houston

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Monetary and physical donations continue to flood into the Red Cross’ relief fund for those affected by Hurricane Harvey.

But as the destruction continues to reveal itself — and Florida braces for Category 5 Hurricane Irma, set to hit this weekend — Jewish communities in the Northeast couldn’t stand idly by.

So some took relief efforts into their own hands — and their own trucks.

Almost 20 18-wheeler trailer trucks made the drive to Houston with supplies and food in tow, most arriving Sept. 5.

David Kushner, who works for Amudim, took an early morning flight to Houston Sept. 5 to meet the trucks at Robert M. Beren Academy, a Jewish day school in the city being used as the campaign’s operations headquarters.

The logistical planning, which Kushner eagerly took part in, to make the more-or-less 23-hour trek began only about a week prior, but it has since collected countless resources.

“All these [Jewish] organizations started these relief campaigns,” he said, “and at some point they turned around and said, ‘What if we just joined forces and had a joint operation? We would get a lot more bang for our buck.’”

And more productive, too. It’s one thing to collect monetary donations, but collecting the essentials is always up in the air.

They hoped to send six or seven loaded 18-wheeler trailers to Houston — they more than doubled their goal.

In addition to resources, more than 300 volunteers traveled to Texas to provide whatever help they can, like cleaning out destroyed houses.

Kushner noted there are roughly 800 people in the Orthodox community in Houston, and 50 percent of homes within that population are completely gone.

“Everything in the whole house is gone,” Kushner recalled of what he’s seen. “You’re cutting out Sheetrock four, five feet high, completely around the whole building. And that’s just to get the moisture out.”

They also connected with the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston to recognize the needs of the Jewish community there.

“Efforts aren’t being doubled unnecessarily,” he added. The operation has remained organized so those volunteers’ time and energy aren’t wasted.
Providing kosher food was an important inclusion as well.

“Especially when you’re dealing with things connected to Shabbos, and two weeks from now is Rosh Hashanah followed right away by Yom Kippur followed right away by Sukkos,” Kushner said. “It poses a challenge and many unique needs that the kosher community has that the general population may not.”

Although the relief drive included many northern cities, Philadelphia somehow missed the cut.

Gwen Horowitz, executive director of Lower Merion Synagogue, heard about the donation drive and had to help in some way, but the closest drop-off sites sending trucks to Texas were either Baltimore or Lakewood, N.J.

The drive was organized by national Jewish organizations, including Seasons grocery stores, Amudim, the Orthodox Union, Evergreen Kosher Market and Achiezer — in coordination with FEMA and Red Cross — so Horowitz simply reached out.

“People from Philadelphia want to help but they’re not going to drive that far,” she added.

So local Philadelphia Jewish agencies pitched in their own commercial vans to send goods donated at Lower Merion Synagogue Sept. 3 to those drop-off locations, which would then make the long haul to Houston.

Four commercial truck drivers donated their time and vehicles to deliver the items — two went to Baltimore and two to Lakewood.

“But we had so many donations that we had to ask one of the drivers to come back,” Horowitz laughed proudly. Baltimore-based business Shlomo’s Kosher Meat happened to be doing its own delivery in Philadelphia, so they filled that empty truck to the brim on its return trip.

All donated resources had to be opened, organized and reboxed to send to the dropoff locations, and hundreds of volunteers from the community came out to lend a hand.

Subsidies had to be new, too — one 18-wheeler included just cleaning products, while others were just kosher food or baby items, for instance.

“[The trucks] were not just filled — you could not fit another thing in these trucks,” Horowitz laughed.

The synagogue continues to collect monetary bequests, as they’ve heard of the crises facing past members who now live in Houston or members’ children who relocated there.

“I just feel we’re all responsible for each other,” she said. “It’s family, and I think everybody here Sunday felt the same way.”

Horowitz knows the impact of hurricane damage, as her father lived on Lido Beach, N.Y., during Superstorm Sandy.

But she said Lower Merion Synagogue would have joined this campaign regardless.

“Whether there’s a crisis here in this country or something in Israel or elsewhere, we really put our heads together very quickly and see what response we can offer,” she said.

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