Guy Cohen, an Israeli working for the Israeli American Council, relates his experience with Hurricane Harvey. He and his wife bought a house in Meyerland, a house that previously had never flooded. Cohen relates the familiar story of Harvey and the flooding. Cohen also reminisces about Tel Aviv, where he and his wife are from, and that the idea of a house and yard is so different from how they grew up. Returning to his house was never a question. Cohen and his wife were committed to their home, but more importantly, the neighborhood. Cohen states about being a secular Jew, “it is not the Jewish religion, it is the Jewish people. The Jewish people want to stay Jewish.” Meyerland is the Jewish community to so many people, and that Cohen believes is what makes it such a great community.
Read on for the full transcript of the interview:
PDH: Good morning. My name is Paula Davis Hoffman. It is the morning of March 6, 2018. A little after 9 in the morning. I am here with Guy Cohen. I am interviewing him as part of The University of Houston Center for Public History’s Resilient Houston project. And we are at The Highbank, an apartment community in Houston, Texas. In the Meyerland area, where a lot of people- including Guy- have been staying since the area flooded during Hurricane Harvey. So, Guy. Let’s start with the basics: name, age, job.
GC: Okay, so my name is Guy Cohen. I am 43. I am the Regional Director of the Israeli American Council (IAC), here in Houston, since July 2017. I used to work at the Israeli Consulate here in Houston, as the Director of Cultural Affairs for 5 years, prior to this job. Arrived to Houston February 18, 2012. 11:30 PM. Anything else that I need to say?
PDH: Can you tell me about your experience during Harvey?
GC: Yes, so first of all I wanted to start from the end. You were mentioning that we are sitting in The Highbank. And I don’t know if you are familiar with the word Chai. In Hebrew, it is 18. And it is also alive. So, since most of the Jewish community in Meyerland is living here in this complex, we call it the Chaibank. Because that’s like a funny Jewish joke that we call it. So, anyway, my experience in Harvey. Okay, let’s start with that. When we bought the house, our main concern was to buy a house that was never flooded. We were after the Memorial Day flooding, we were just looking for a house that was clear, that this house was never flooded and we bought it. We were very happy. And then there was the Tax Day flood. And the water reached out pretty close to the house, but we didn’t flood. So we were happy and all the noise around Harvey didn’t really concern me because I thought, “We will not get flooded because this house never flooded!” So I did go to the Home Depot to buy a generator that was later flooded, and some other stuff. I prepared myself, I bought water. I bought an ax to break the roof. If we would- if, if if. But I was- it was very fun for me. It was like an adventure. But I never believed that something would happen. Then we took shifts at the night, me and my wife, in order to see if it’s flooding, to wake the other person. I remember watching television. I don’t remember what, but I fell asleep in my shift. My wife woke up around 5 or 4 and she came to the living room and she saw me asleep and she said, “Guy! What’s going on?” And we opened the door and I realized that we were going to flood. Because the water was just 2 inches from our door. And then I said, “Okay…” And we took all the water and some food to the attic. We woke the kids up. I had already put their mattress and a blanket and they went upstairs and I stayed downstairs to lift everything that I found. I just went all over the house during an hour or so. And also when the house started to flood. I lifted everything I could. I saw something, I lifted. And the water started to come in. And that’s it. It was very, for me it was- I wouldn’t say it was a shock or a bad experience at the moment, at the moment when it happened. It was just happening. So I acted. I did what I thought needed to be done, and I went upstairs, and we were looking at the phones and updating on the news, and texting with friends, what is going on with you, what is going on with you? And we spent there several hours while the water kept on coming up. So I went downstairs, I marked a sign on the wall to see the level of the water and a few hours later another sign and another sign because I wanted to see the speed that the water comes up in order to try to figure out what to do. We had food, we had water, everything was to me, okay- we were going to survive it. It was not a question of life or death. So everything was good. But everyone in my family, everyone took it a little bit different. My daughter I think she took it in the hardest way. She just laid down on the mattress and didn’t speak. She will not speak from there 2 or 3 days other than yes or no. My son, he saw it as an adventure. “This is cool! Look at my toys, they are floating, blah blah blah.” He didn’t realize then that everything that is floating needs to be thrown away. I saved some of their toys, but I will tell you about it later. So he really thought it was kind of an adventure. And my wife, she knew it was not the end of the world. It is not someone that died, but she took it also very, very hard, because we just renovated the house a year ago, a year before the flood and we really loved this house. It just reminds me, when I say that we loved this house, my son had to write a paragraph about something that he loves- in school. So he wrote, “I love my house- very, very much. I miss it. I want to go back to it. I wish we didn’t have to stay in this apartment where there are people above us that are walking all the time above my head, talking and listening to music. I understand they want to have fun, but don’t they know there are humans living under them?” So this was just to take you a little bit to reality, today. They took it differently, my wife decided at one point that we can’t stay in the attic. I thought we could stay there and wait until the water goes down. I was sure that it was not going to go more than 2 feet. Also, the forecast, it was already getting a little bit better. But at this point we had 18 inches of water and we decided to leave. So I went downstairs and outside. And started to look for a rescue, because we couldn’t go out, it was a river. Everything was floating. There were some volunteers in boats- canoes, boats, kayaks. That were helping people around. And we just took turns. There were people that were coming, and I said, “Okay, take them first” because they were older, in front of us, across the street there was a 90 year old woman. And another couple that were much older. And so they took them first and then they took us. We sailed to friends that live 4 streets away. They have a two-story house that is lifted. I mean, it is not lifted. They just rebuilt it after it was flooded on Memorial Day. We went there and we stayed there with three more families. They had a dog. The other family had a dog and a cat. Everyone was there. They hosted us in the most wonderful and welcoming and supporting way, ever. They gave us a room and my wife and my son and my daughter, they slept on the bed. I slept on the floor. But at least it was dry and we were safe from the water. And eventually, actually during the time, they were not sure they would not flood, too. So we spent a lot of time lifting things in there house, too. They had much more expensive stuff than we do, like very expensive couches and beds and everything. We lifted everything, it was crazy. The water got a few inches from there house, but it didn’t get in. And then afterwards it was a few hours of just sitting and like having friends time together with people that are very nice and you never knew them- I mean, we knew them, but other families that were there, we didn’t know. It was very fun. It was nice. For me. My wife, she did not see the fun part of it too much. My daughter was not really communicating. And my son had fun. And that’s it! And then I went to the house. I practically went in the water to my waist. To the belt. The water reached to my belt. I went in the water, to my house, to see what’s going on there. There was no water at the house but I saw the floor was already getting hills and bumps and it was horrible. It was really, really horrible, to see the damage that was done. The walls started to swell. The kitchen cabinets- everything. It was very bad. We took some stuff. And then the first mission was, “where are we staying?” Because we couldn’t stay in this family’s house, with one room, with all the people around- we didn’t want to fall on them, you know. So we had other friends that offered their house, they live in Bellaire, their house didn’t flood. So they have a friend that is my daughter’s age- they have a girl my daughter’s age and a son my son’s age. So we decided to go to them, and now the question is how to get there. Because there- it’s all flooding. It is still flooded, everything is flooded. So I decided to take a chance and see if my Jeep is really a Jeep or not. It is a Wrangler. I love it and I went into the car and it was flooded, the car was flooded, but since it was a Jeep, it ran. And we- I took my wife, the kids, well first of all I took- I don’t remember what happened first, if I only took my wife and we only went there. And brought some stuff and came back for the kids or not. I do not remember exactly but I do remember that we were almost the only car driving in the road. Road, or river- whatever you want to call it. And there were no cars at all that were driving in the streets of Houston in this part of town. The only thing that was there is floating cars. I remember the view. Going on 610, on Post Oak. You have the view of this part of the city, where we sit here. There are a lot of parking lots. Near the bayou. And you saw cars that were floating. You saw them floating, really floating. It was amazing. The next few days were just crazy days of trying to figure out what to do. What do you do with the house, what do you do with the stuff? We took so many suitcases and bags from our friends and came back home and tried to save everything. And then we realized that we had to tear the house apart. To take the sheetrock off, in order for the mold not to get to the roof. And we had to talk to the insurance and no one really knew what to do and the insurance guy didn’t get back to me, so I didn’t know if I could cut the walls or if I could not cut the walls- should I? Should I not? And lucky enough, friends that were our neighbors when we just arrived here, on our old house, they flooded twice. And lucky enough, they just called us, said, “What’s going on?” And I said, “Yeah, we got flooded.” And they said, “Okay, tomorrow we are going to be there to help you.” And I said, “Okay. I will wait for this guy. See what happens. I will ask him some questions.” And in the morning, I was there, and he arrived and I said, “Okay, what are we going to do?” And he said, “A few more guys are coming to help us. And we will start taking the walls down.” And he explained what needs to be done. By this time, I think I already contacted insurance guy, the inspector. Not inspector. I forgot the term. And he told me to take 4 feet from the wall. And in one hour, around 15 guys from the neighborhood, whom I never knew, had nothing to do with me, had no connection to me, I don’t know them. They came with equipment. They came as if this is their job. It’s not. None of them. But every one of them, they had experienced a flood or helped in a flood before. And they just helped me prepare the house for cleaning and taking the floor and taking everything. You know, some of the floor they couldn’t take so I had to take some professionals. But at this point I already could tell between people who are coming from their love and pure heart to help, and other people who want to take advantage of the situation, like taking a lot of money for something that is really- that can be done by volunteers or whatever. And it continues until today. You can really see the difference between the kind of people that are doing that. You can’t put the finger who is who, but you can understand if someone is asking great amount of money to do something that is really, really, really cheap. Anyway, we took the walls down, the floor, everything was out there, on the street and at one point I remember that my wife came into the house and she broke. And it was the first time that we realized what happened- like we had a house, and now we don’t have a house. Very simple. Yeah, we found this apartment and it took us some time to really clean the house and get rid of everything there and then it took us a lot of time to wait for the insurance and to see how much money we get and then what we are going to do with the house. Are we going to ruin it? Are we going to rebuild? Are we going to sell? Are we going to renovate? It was mind-blowing, the ideas, the options, the not being sure of what you get, what you can use. It was really not fun. When you are doing it because you want to do it and you want to have a new start and to go to another place, it might be fun, it might be interesting, it is a project that you take on yourself. But in the middle of your life, when you are totally not prepared, you have to do it. Now, this is what you have to do. It is so hard. We are now in March. The flood was in August. Last week we started renovating the house. So, when people in other places think in Facebook time, in news time, then the flood was over 2 or 3 weeks after it actually happened. For us, I guess it will end after a year from the day that it started. Because we are not going to go into our house and we are not going to get our life back before that. The community was hurt in a very, very bad way. It starts from schools and synagogues and community centers, shopping centers and everything in the neighborhood was flooded and it- this is also that raised a lot of questions: Do we want to stay in the neighborhood? What will happen next flood? What is going on? How will the city take care of it? And a lot of people that I talk to, people that have been living in Houston for years, and people that are doing real estate, and are agents, and they said that we need to take Harvey as something that is really extraordinary. It might happen again, yes, but people have A) good faith and B) short memory, and the facilities are staying in the neighborhood. As long as the facilities are staying in the neighborhood, the synagogues are not doing to move, the JCC is not going to move, so the community is not going to move. And I doubted it. I didn’t know if it was really going to happen. But talking to people on my street, I realized that most people are staying. Either renovating and taking the chance- because our street never flooded- the surrounding of my house, it really never flooded. So, me, the house that is near me like 3 or 2 houses from every direction to my house- everybody is just renovating. At the corner of the street, it flooded three times, they are going to ruin and rebuild. But everybody is going to stay and everybody believes that the neighborhood is going to come back really fast. Really fast, I mean, some years, but comparatively really fast to what it used to be because the population did not run away. And now the school that my son went to, the elementary school, Kolter, it is also going to be rebuilt. And so I hope it will be a nice, big school that will again accommodate a lot of the Jewish community that is there. I don’t know. Do you have guided questions so I can look at remember stuff?
PDH- You talked a lot about the community. You talked about Meyerland and the community center. I assume you mean the Jewish Community Center on South Braeswood? And the synagogues and the shopping malls. I would like to talk more about the community. You moved from Tel Aviv?
PDH- In 2012. Did you move to Meyerland?
GC- Yeah. We came after my wife- okay, so why did we come? Let’s talk about this. I used to run a theater in Israel. And my wife finished her pediatrician studies, she just received her certificate. And she wanted to do another fellowship in genetics in Houston. She is an MD, Ph.D., so she does also research fellowships so she was accepted to Baylor College of Medicine. We came here after her and it was pure luck that I got the position of Director of Cultural Affairs at the consulate. We arrived to Meyerland, we lived near Herod school and after 4 years, three and a half or four years, we decided to buy a house and we moved to another part of the neighborhood, still in the neighborhood. You have to know where we are coming from in order to understand the big change in the life quality. Tel Aviv is a very modern city. It is built with buildings. You live in a building. You have to be very, very rich in order to live in a house. It is very crowded. It is very nice, it is very beautiful, I love it. It is the best place on Earth. But in order to raise your children- when you come to a neighborhood where you have houses and back yards and parks and the neighbors are not living inside your life from all sides. You just have space. And it was very, very important to us to stay in a house and to live a life that we didn’t live before. We lived in an apartment and it was a big apartment, a nice apartment, I don’t complain, but it is not the same. You know, I told my wife that if we ever get back to Israel, I am not going to live in a box. Ever again. That’s it. So we arrived here in 2012. I worked at the consulate and my wife did her internship and then she did another internship. A fellowship and then another fellowship. She never stopped learning. The JCC- the Jewish Community Center was kind of- still is- the center of our children’s lives. They go to school, but from school there’s a bus taking them to the JCC to after-school activities- all our cultural activities happening at the JCC. There’s a very big difference between American Jewish and Israeli Jewish because in Israel you don’t have to do anything in order to be Jewish, because most of the people there are Jewish. 75% of Israel is Jewish. You don’t have to try too hard. You are Jewish, that’s it. Shabbat is Shabbat, Yom Kippur is Yom Kippur. No one is driving on Yom Kippur. Yom Ha’atzmaut, all the holidays, everything is closed- it’s a Jewish- a Jewish, a huge, HUGE neighborhood. Okay? When you come here, the Jewish community has to do- to act in order to stay Jewish and their actions are all around the synagogues. So this is the community. This is the congregation. It is not about, you know I hosted a rabbi in one of our meetings through my work, and I can tell you a little bit about it later, and he said- it’s an Orthodox rabbi- and he said, “In my congregation, praying is number 2 out of 10 priorities that we have.” So, for me, as an Israeli- where you go to a congregation or you go to a synagogue only to pray, it was a shock- because what are the other priorities that you have if praying is only number 2? And it is very hard for us to understand that here a congregation is a community. It has the activities, it has the school, it helps people, if someone needs someone he calls the rabbi, it is something very, very warm and homey- it’s something that we didn’t have in Israel because we just don’t work in communities in Israel. You don’t need a community. You have friends. You don’t live in a community. Here the Jewish community- it has its own communities around the schuls, around the synagogues- so UOS is the community that was affected very, very, very hard from Harvey. It ruined their synagogue three times- for the first time, in Memorial Day and then Tax Day and then Harvey. It is devastating for them. I was yesterday in UOS school. They have a preschool- because I am trying to bring them some Hebrew enrichment program. And they are located in another synagogue- in Brith Shalom. And I told her, “So when are you going back to UOS, to United Orthodox?” And she said, “This is permanently. That’s it. We decided we are not going back.” But the distance between UOS and Brith Shalom are kind of two streets. So it is still in the neighborhood. And the effect that the flood that Harvey had on the communities was tremendous. First of all, it united the whole community together. This was the first effect. The community came together as one. Usually, you have communities around synagogues and there is not a lot of connections. People know each other. But mainly from the congregation, and this is their community. Everything was mixed during Harvey. Right after Harvey. The Jewish Federation and the JCC and all the synagogues became shelters and warehouses for goods, for things that people needed, the JCC opened the huge tennis center that they have for donations all over. And people just came, and you could see- not only Jewish people there. You could see everyone was coming there and getting supplies, and you had to stay in line to take a number, someone would go with you. You could take one bucket- you had a list of things that you could take. But the help they gave was amazing. It looked to me very sad because it proved to me that we are a disaster area. Because this is not something that happens every day. This was a disaster area, and you could see it. You could see it in the faces of the people, you could see it in the things that were getting distributed, it was blankets, it was towels, clothes, cleaning materials. It wasn’t a pretty sight. It was an amazing sight in terms of, wow, how the community is helping itself and its people to overcome it, but it wasn’t a pretty sight. Mainly because the places themselves that held those centers were affected the same. So, the JCC, for example, the whole JCC was flooded. Their lower level got 10 feet of water. Bertha Alyce Preschool, Childhood- I don’t remember the exact name, but Bertha Alyce got flooded, all the 20 classes were ruined. And this brought another very interesting support. The Jewish community supported a lot, a lot of money in order to overcome this. Also through the JFS, the Jewish Family Services, that is a part of The Jewish Federation, to help families and to help individuals, starting from mental help and ending in financial help. Right away. Right away. When it happened, they just started and that’s what happened. The State of Israel, and this is a very, very interesting story- the State of Israel decided to donate one million dollars to the federation here in order to help the Jewish community, and the Israeli community, of course, inside of it. Why am I saying that it’s very interesting? Because usually Israel is sending aid like people or you know trucks or equipment that can build, rebuild, help in disasters, stuff like this. Never money, because it is not like- you just don’t do that. You send help, if help is needed. But here, they sent money and this is very, very unique because it has a saying, and the saying is, “You are doing an important job for us, for Israel, when you are there. And while you are contributing money to Israel all these years- because the Jewish Federation is sending money to Israel all the years- we want to show our appreciation and support when you are in trouble.” So this was very, very interesting. And also we had a campaign at the Israeli American Council. We came with a campaign to raise money to help the community and we actually got $25,000 from donations that were between 50 and 100 dollars. So it’s not that someone came and said, “Okay, I am putting $25,000.” There are a lot of people who can do it, but that wasn’t the case. Many, many, many people put 100, 50, 18, 36- and we donated it to Bertha Alyce to rebuild the classes there. So this this also something that is also very, very important to show that there is support of the community and giving back to the community. So this is also important.
PDH: Guy, you mentioned the JCC’s relief efforts were not particularly Jewish- they were open to the public, for Jews and non-Jews, even though it was housed at the Jewish Community Center. It sounds like the other relief efforts that you mentioned were intra-ethnic support networks. It was Jews helping Jews. You mentioned your campaign to help the Bertha Alyce preschool. In the campaign you wrote, “We will show Israeli Americans and Jewish Americans are one strong family that value each other, value our community, and value our home here in Houston.” I was hoping you could talk a little more about what it means, this idea that Jews help other Jews in this time of crisis. Specifically in Meyerland, in this Jewish community.
GC- Let’s go back to what I said about Israel. In Israel, you don’t have to practice or do anything important or hard in order to be a Jew. This is the Jewish state. When you are out of Israel, if you don’t do anything to stay a community, you will lose it. And the Jewish population here is under a threat of losing their Jewish identity. They young generation is becoming more and more- I wouldn’t say open or liberal. Those are not the words. But assimilation. They marry who they want to marry, and that is wonderful. I am for marry for love and whatever. You know, my daughter goes to public school, my son goes to public school, I don’t know who they bring home as boyfriend/girlfriend, and honestly, I am debating myself every time- all the time, if I care or not. Because my mind says that I don’t care. I don’t care! As long as they love each other and they are happy, I don’t care. But then you see the statistics. More than 80% of the Israeli-American kids are marrying non-Jews. 80%. And then you are saying, “Okay. So we are in the statistics.” Almost for sure. And now the question is the importance of being a Jew. The importance of your culture. If you are an Israeli, of the language. Of the holidays. And it’s very confusing. I have to say that for- I define myself as very, very liberal. And still, it is very confusing for me. I am not affiliated with any synagogue. I am not practicing Judaism in any way. I don’t believe in anything that has to do with any religion. But when it comes to tradition- and I think it is coming from me being an Israeli, a Jewish state that had to fight and defend herself and come to life after the Holocaust, that meant to destroy all the Jewish people and it sometimes saying, “Are you giving it up? Like, that easy?” And I think this is the answer to your question. Why it is important or how it’s important that the Jewish community helps itself, or what is so important for them to be a Jewish community. I think it is not the religion, like the belief, I think it is more the religion, like the culture. And it is not the Jewish religion, it is the Jewish people. The Jewish people want to stay Jewish. They want to stay with their culture, with their songs and the holidays that they learned about and that they practice and it is not about believing in God yes or not. This is something private. You can believe in God, there is a lot of forms that people are believing here, or don’t believe. And that is fine. But the culture that you grew up in is something that you want to maintain. Most of the time. Some people don’t but some people do. And the community here came very strongly together after Harvey, it helped them realize that we help each other. So when you ask me how come the Jewish community is helping each other, I think you have to go thousands of years back to see that the Jewish community always maintained together. This is something that was sometimes a bad thing for them because they were targeted. It is a very strong community. It has some values as Tikkun Olam. And it has some values as veahavta l’reyacha kamocha and like I don’t know how to translate it- love to your other like you love yourself. And Tikkun Olam is fixing the world. And kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh is all Israel- Israeli meaning the Jewish people, not the State of Israel- kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh is all Israel are guaranteed, not guaranteed, I miss the word, but they depend on each other. Maybe this is the word, but not exactly. So those values are keeping us all together. And it doesn’t mean that we don’t support the other communities, and this is very important for me to emphasize because one of the communities that I can tell you for sure is the Christian Evangelist church in Gulf Meadows, they got tons of goods that we had at the JCC, that we knew that their community also is in need and we are in very good connections with them. So we helped them. And this is how it should be. Yes, we are a community and we live together as a community and as a Jewish community and people that live together, but we also live in a larger community that is mostly Christian, sometimes Muslim. In my house, some of the people who came to help, to clean the house were Muslim. From Muslim Brotherhood- I don’t remember the company that was there, but they came inside, they knew that they were coming into a Jewish house, I knew that they were Muslim because they had Muslim writing on their shirts because they came from an organization and it wasn’t even a question of what are you or who are you. This is the community. Houston became a community. I don’t know if you remember, but the radio, the television, everything was talking about Houston Strong. And all the communities together, other than taking care of their own communities, it was very important for all the communities to contribute to the larger Houston community. And I hope this is answering your question. I am not sure. Tell me if not.
PDH: It is.
GC: It is. Okay.
PDH: I want to switch gears a little bit. You are not a religiously observant Jew, but you are devoted to the cultural practice of Judaism. I wanted to ask you about your role, as Houston’s Regional Director for the Israeli American Council- I know you organize Shabbat dinners, you organize parties for children around important Jewish cultural events. Can you talk a little bit about that?
GC- Yes, so the need in something- Okay, let’s go. Every question you ask, I am taking you back. So I will do the same here.
PDH- That’s fine.
GC- I am taking you back here, back to who I am. I am an Israeli. I dream in Hebrew. I count in Hebrew. I think in Hebrew. I will always, when I am here, I will always be an immigrant. As long as I am here, I am an immigrant. My kids are not. Even though they came here very young and they were born in Israel, they feel much more American than Israelis. The question is how we maintain the Israeli culture in them, and do how we maintain Jewish culture and identity in them. If they go to public schools and we don’t go to synagogue, so where will they learn? Where will they get the sense of community or religion- again, not as a belief, but as a culture? So the answer for this was the Israeli American Council. And the Israeli American Council, it appears that I was not the only one- so surprising! I was not the only one that dealt with this problem. And a lot of Israelis are feeling the same, all over the country. So the Israeli American Council, that was founded in 2007, if I am not mistaken, came to answer this exact need. Or challenge. To talk and to deal with the young generation and to get them together as a community with their parents and to make sure that they are part of the larger Jewish community using Israel as a bridge between these two communities. And this is also a very important part because these days Israel can be very, very controversial. Especially in terms of Judaism and some laws or steps that were taken in Israel regarding Judaism. So the Israeli community is the best representative of Israel, in the Jewish community, that is sometimes very angry at Israel, and the Israeli community can be a buffer or like a something like a representative, a diplomat. That is not a diplomat, an official diplomat. So what we do is we try to raise community leaders that will come and answer the needs of the community, that will define the needs of the community and will come up with programs that will unite the community, get it closer to the Jewish community. And we try to keep Israel always there, always in the subject. So let me give you some examples. You mentioned programs for kids, storytelling in Hebrew, activities in Hebrew for kids that are Israelis and are not Israelis also, a program for teens that is a leadership program that is a program based on project-based learning. A program for students, a program for adults, leadership programs for adults, the Shishi Israeli, the Shabbat dinner that you mentioned. But what we also did is ask the community, “Okay what is it that you miss?” So someone from the community came up and said, “We don’t have activities for our age, for people who already have kids, and we don’t’ have any Hebrew/ Jewish/ Israeli activities that is not religion, that doesn’t have anything to do with Judaism, but has to do something with Israel. So I said, “Okay, what do you want to do?” They said, “We want to do a party. A party line.” And they came up with this deal of an Israeli Saturday Night Live party. And we are going to have a line that is going to be once a month. An Israeli party with Israeli music and an Israeli theme. Every time, it is going to be a little bit different. And the first one, it is going to be this month. And this is something that came from the community, and the IAC is taking care of it and making the production and being the umbrella organization to this activity. Another activity was women lectures. We want to have women evenings. So it became women lunches more than women evenings, but it doesn’t matter. They will bring people from the community to speak about their occupations. There are a lot of interesting occupations that Israeli people hold here in Houston. They will have lectures, and they are doing it. A program for kids in Hebrew. Last year, the Israeli Scouts was established here in Houston. In Hebrew. For teens, actually it is not for teens- it is for kids, from 3rd grade, 4th grade, until 12th grade. And that’s a thing. So a lot, a lot of activities, that are now happening, in the last year, in order to build a community, a feeling of belonging to a community. Something for Israelis, if they come alone, they don’t see the need at the beginning, because they are not used to living in a community.
PDH- Before I ask the next question, I just want to establish that we are talking about Meyerland as a Jewish community. You see Meyerland as a particularly Jewish community in Houston.
GC- Yeah, mostly. I mean there are a lot of non-Jewish living in Meyerland, but if you ask me where are the Jewish community living in Houston, I would say Meyerland.
PDH- And there are things that mark it as a Jewish community?
GC- Yeah, look at the number of synagogues that are in the neighborhood and around the neighborhood. And you go to every supermarket, you have a Kosher part of the supermarket. Yeah, it is a- it is not a Jewish community by definition, it is a Jewish community because a lot of Jews live there and a lot of Jewish community centers are there.
PDH- There are rumors- unsubstantiated rumors, that the JCC is leaving and there are people who are saying it is a disservice to the Jewish community to stay in a flood plain and that it would be- a lot of Jews are leaving. I know you can’t predict the future, but where do you see the future of Meyerland? Do you think it will remain a Jewish community?
GC- I actually see the opposite. I think it will become a new Bellaire. I think that the- I know for sure that the Jewish Community Center is not going to move. They are putting a lot of money on renovating and they are doing a great job and there is no reason to move, there is no- okay, the reason of the next flood? Okay, there is always a reason- there is always an option that it will flood again, but I think everyone is trusting the city to do more effective prevention work. I don’t see many Jews leaving the neighborhood. On the contrary, I see people that are rebuilding their houses to much bigger houses. I see people that are elevating their houses. And staying. If you talk to people that live in the neighborhood, everyone- and it doesn’t matter if they are Jewish or non-Jewish- this is a neighborhood thing, it is not a religion thing, they would say that they loved the neighborhood. They just love the neighborhood! My fear for the neighborhood is not from flooding, it is more for violence and- I don’t know if you remember- just before Harvey- I think it was just before Harvey, recently, a few shootings that happened in Nob Hill, which is in the neighborhood. This is much more of a concern than the flood in terms of where people will go. Flooding is something that people can- I think, can tolerate, more than criminal activity or the freedom and the feeling that it is safe. The safety. If we will lose this, we will lose the neighborhood. Not the flood. The flood will not make people leave. Safety will.
PDH- You think there is an uptick in crime in Meyerland, and that is the bigger threat to the neighborhood?
PDH- I haven’t heard that before. Where do you think this uptick in crime is coming from?
GC- That is a very good question. I don’t know. To tell you exactly where it is coming from, but I can tell you that we have a lot of Facebook and WhatsApp groups now for our streets and a lot of criminal activity is happening in the neighborhood that is now a quarter or a half empty. Breaking into houses, stealing from front doors or just people who are seeing this neighborhood as a target now. I hope that as fast as people will come back to their houses, it will bring back the security and it will chase away the criminal activity. But, again, in some places in the neighborhood, where people are living in complex zones that are not very expensive, I can see a rising criminal activity.
PDH- Which you see is, in part, because of so many abandoned homes, because so many people have left.
GC- Yes and no. Now, yes. But it happened before. It started before. It started to happen before. And I don’t know the reason for it.
PDH- So that sounds like the opposite of Bellaire.
GC- Yes, but. Since I see so much building and the building- are all of them are very big and very beautiful and new, there is no chance that it will become a bad neighborhood. Because the taxes and the prices of the house will only allow a certain people from a higher economic level to live there. It was a middle-class neighborhood and it is going to stay a middle-class neighborhood. It is not going to go down. The fear was that it was going to go down. But it is not going to go down. And if you go and you drive down, drive in the streets of the most flooded areas, you would see the building movements there, it is amazing. It is amazing. And people are not selling so fast because prices are very down now. So they are waiting a little bit. I don’t know if it is a smart move or not. I am not a real estate agent, I don’t know. But I see that in the new houses they are building- they are big, beautiful houses. It is not going to become a bad neighborhood.
PDH- So, a lot of people are planning on selling their houses at some point in the future, and you said that-
GC- But, you know, let me tell you something. A lot of people that are planning to sell their house looking to buy non-flooded houses in the neighborhood.
PDH- So they want to stay in Meyerland?
GC- Yeah. So this is something that I see. A lot of people that are selling their house and they are still looking for a house. Where? In the neighborhood. So they are looking for a house that wasn’t flooded or something like this, but they don’t look to leave the neighborhood. At least people that I am talking to. I never, until now, I never met anyone that is leaving the neighborhood. One. The only person who told me that they’d probably leave the neighborhood was our neighbors, and they said they are doing it because their kids are going to move in their house. So it is not really leaving the neighborhood. Their kids will live in the house and they are going to move to another place, but it is not- the family is still in the neighborhood. It still stays there. I didn’t hear about anyone who is leaving the neighborhood.
PDH- So the people that you are speaking to, who want to stay in the neighborhood, are they Jewish? Is part of the reason that they want to stay, do you think, because of this resiliency of culture that you talked about, that comes from living in a Jewish area?
GC- I don’t know. I don’t know what to tell you, because I never ask for their reason. And my answer would be only guessing. I never ask, “So, you want to stay here because you are Jewish and this is a Jewish neighborhood?”
PDH- Are they Jewish?
GC- Some of them yes, some of them no. I am talking about some friends from my daughter’s school. They live a few houses from us, a few blocks. And they ruined their house and they are building a new one and they are going to live there. And they are going to stay. People from my son’s school that are not Jewish, still going to live there, renovate. Yeah. Our neighbor across the street is not Jewish. She is going to live there, she is going to renovate and stay.
PDH- What about new people? You said people are going to be more deterred by crime than they are by this history of serial flooding. Do you think young, Jewish families- young, Jewish families with kids looking- like you did in 2012- to settle down in Houston in a particularly Jewish area. Do you think that they will be deterred by this history of serial flooding?
GC- I don’t think so. I don’t think so, not because I see the future, I don’t think so because we are now half a year after the flooding and I can tell you that families that arrived from Israel- I can’t speak about Jewish Americans, because I have less connection to the Jewish American community, young people- I can give you examples of Israelis that are coming- they are coming to Meyerland. So they are looking for houses in Meyerland. So they will look for a place that wasn’t flooded, they don’t really know what flood means, but they will still search for houses in the neighborhood. Because it is very convenient. You have the schools- the area has a lot of good public schools, I am not talking about Jewish schools. It has a lot of very good public schools. Elementary- it is really a good neighborhood. Not even if you are talking about Jewish or non-Jewish. It is a good neighborhood. Education is good and you have a lot of facilities, you have a lot of parks, it is close to the city, it is close to the medical center, you know, not very far from downtown. It is near the 610. And yet it has the feeling of the suburb. So, yeah, I don’t see people really affected by the flood to leave the neighborhood now. I would be very surprised if in 10 years we would meet again and you would show me, “You see? It is not a Jewish neighborhood anymore.” I would be very surprised.
PDH- Your son’s school is known- it is a public school, but it is known for having a particularly high concentration of Jewish students. I understand they made latkes for Hannukah.
PDH- And other schools were singing Christmas carols
GC- They are doing the whole drill. They are doing Hannukah, they are doing Christmas carols- they are doing everything. My son is totally confused about religion and he told me one time, “You know, this guy- I don’t remember his name. It was Jesus? Or Moses? What was his name?” And I was like, “Okay…”
PDH- He should know Moses! At least!
GC- He was like, “Jesus? Moses? What was that guy’s name?” And I was like, “Okay, we need to practice a little bit more.”
PDH- So, let’s talk about the Chaibank. Let’s talk about your relocating here. You mentioned that there are a lot of Meyerland floodies who live here now. Can you tell me about what it is like to live here? I think you mentioned that they opened earlier than they were supposed to?
GC- Yeah. So what happened is that we arrived here because we had the opportunity to drive. A lot of people were stuck in their homes because they didn’t have cars. We had the opportunity to drive and we actually drove to 5 or 6 complexes around the city. We arrived to this one, it was just opened like 2 weeks before the flooding to start to accommodate a few families at a time. They weren’t prepared for the flood of people that were coming here. So we were here and they told us they have no available apartments for right now, but we are doing the best to make the apartment ready to move in as fast as we can, you can come in to the waiting list. So we immediately entered the waiting list and when we came here we were the only- one of three cars on our floor’s garage. Now, when I come sometimes I need to go to another floor or to two floors above to find parking. Because it is full. But back then it was just a new building, a new facility, a new complex. Of course, it has a lot of benefits. You go into an apartment, everything is very convenient, everything is new. No one used anything before you, it is very nice. If you have a problem there is someone who is fixing it. It is very, very nice. BUT- when we went into the apartment, and we didn’t have a huge house, we had a four-bedroom house. But when we came here, I remember my son at the door said, “Oh, it is like tiny houses in television!” Because it is very, very small. We have a master bedroom and we have one room for the kids. Both of them have to share a room, which is not very convenient because my daughter is turning 14 and my son is 10 and it is not the age for living in the same room. And the living room and the kitchen is like one room that is a very small one. I know it sounds like I am complaining, I know that other people are in worse situations, but I am talking about myself- the noise from neighbors and from the outside- it’s taking you back. This is not why I came here, you know? I think it is a good complex, but it is not what I want to live in. I don’t want to live in a two-bedroom apartment when I come to Houston, which is huge, and I have opportunities to live in a house that has four bedrooms and a backyard and a front yard and each room is like the whole apartment that I have now. But it is what it is and we are renovating and hopefully we will get back there soon. If you are asking about the community of this place?
PDH- I was asking about the community, because you are here with a lot of people who have been through a shared trauma. A lot of people here have been through what you went through, and they are coming from a similar perspective.
GC- Okay, so on Sukkot, if you went to the highest parking, which is open, you could see two sukkah. How do you say in English?
GC- Two sukkahs that are built on the roof here, for the community. We have a WhatsApp group for the Highbank, that people are- I can show you messages, like “Someone has a glass of sugar, someone has-“ It is kind of, you know, like a kibbutz, if I were to compare it to Israel. It is like a community building. Everybody knows everybody, everybody knows that other people are from the same situation, so “What’s going on with you? What’s going on with you? Did you decide what you are going to do?” You are going to the gym so you are talking to someone and even if you don’t know them you know that they are from the neighborhood and they look familiar, and you start a conversation, it always comes to “Okay, where did you live? How much water did you get? What are you going to do?” And stuff like this. Again, it is a very, very community living surrounding. You feel very homey here. But I think that if you were to interview someone who is not an Israeli, he would even say more about the community. Here, I know that there are games that they are playing every Sunday. I think it’s cards, and they are also- I think it is Bridge. And also there is softball that they are playing every Sunday and it is all about people from this building, and the building that is near here, so it is another complex that- most of the Jewish community is living here. And this is again, when you are asking why did it happen? Why did all the Jewish people from the neighborhood came here? They don’t really need to be close to their houses, right? Their houses, that’s it- there is no house. You don’t have anything to do in your house now. So I could go and live in the Heights, right? But you have the schools and you have the synagogues, and you have the community centers, and that is what keeps you wanting to live near the neighborhood. And this building was an option, this building was an empty option, so it is very not surprising that it became The Chaibank. It is very, very- it is logic. It makes sense.
PDH- Guy, before we conclude, is there anything you wanted to add to the conversation? Anything you wanted to say before we finish up?
GC- I don’t know. I really hope that the city will do something very, very radical in order to prevent the flooding from reoccurring. Having gone through one, once, I can tell you that I don’t recommend it to anyone. And I think- there were a lot of numbers thrown in the air during the period of time right after Harvey. FEMA, the state, the nation- millions, billions, billions, trillions of dollars that are going to be put in to rebuild Houston. I hope that this money will find a way to really make sure it is not going to happen again. And not to other resources. I mean, I hope they will not take advantage of it, to just fix a road somewhere that needs to be fixed. And, sure, it needs to be fixed and they should find the money for it, but the money that is coming from FEMA or from wherever it is coming from should be put to the structure of the water, the way that the water goes here in this city, in a way so that this will never happen again. And not fix one place in order to make another place have the water. Because you have the rule: water is- you can’t prevent it from rising. If you fix one place, you have to make sure that you are not just drawing the water to another neighborhood.
PDH- You are pretty confident in this allocation of funds to remediate our- to make our flood situation better?
PDH- Confident enough that you are just remediating your house. Are you nervous that it will flood again? Is this something that you and your wife, when you considered other options, that you- is your wife going to be scared every time it rains? Because you said she was-
GC- Yes. She is going to be scared every time it rains. I will be- I have to admit it, I am going to be alerted every time it is going to rain. I don’t know how my kids will act every time it rains. I can tell you that we live now in the first floor and when it rains my son goes to the window and he checks he rain and he says, “It is okay. It is not going to flood.” So obviously, when we live on the ground, it is going to be the same. And I don’t want to think what will happen if the street starts flooding. It will be a stress for sure. The reason why- no, we didn’t want to renovate. The reason why we are renovating is because our status here is not permanent yet. So we have a visa to live here and work here and to raise our kids here and everything, but we don’t have our green card yet and I think that if we were permanent residents, I might put an effort to sell property in Israel and bring the money here and ruin the house and build a new one, higher, in the neighborhood. But I didn’t want to do all this effort under the situation that I might not get permanent residence here. So, it will be just a headache. Because it is a much bigger headache to build a new house than to just renovate.
PDH- Did you renovate with flooding in mind, just in case? I mean, your floors, are they wood, are they tile?
GC- They are going to be wood.
PDH- Okay. So, that’s a big gamble! So you are pretty confident.
GC- I am not confident, not at all. But I won’t live in fear. If we decided that we are going to renovate, then we are going to renovate in a way that we will like our house. And one of the things that we like about it is that it has wood floors. So we- it might have engineered wood, or maybe we will go for another- cheaper kind of wood. We had hard wood in the first place, but we might go for another. But it is going to look the same and it is going to be comfortable and it is going to be homey and it is going to be- and we are going to love this house. Because otherwise- it wouldn’t make sense to renovate something in the fear of losing it. It is not- it doesn’t make sense. We are putting a big, significant amount of money in order to make it very nice for us to live in. And we are even adding some things that we are going to- you know, we are going to change a little bit of our fans and build a gate and make our yard a little bit bigger, so we are going to- we are looking at it as not something that will flood again. Knowing that it might flood. We have no control over it. But you know we have friends that flooded- that Harvey was the third time they flooded. And they are renovating. What can I say? I mean, I don’t know. Everyone is deciding by their own different points of views and opinions and wishes, so yeah, I don’t know.
PDH- Guy, thank you so much. It has been a pleasure talking to you. I am so sorry about what you and your family have gone through, and I am really glad there is a light at the end of the tunnel and soon, hopefully, you will be back in your beautiful new house.
GC- Thank you, thank you. Thank you for letting me talk about it. I am very curious to hear what I just said. I hate hearing myself, so I don’t know if I will make it.
PDH- Well, then you’ll read the transcript.
GC- Yeah. Okay.
PDH- Thank you
GC- Thank you so much.