Rabbi Jill Levy moved to Houston when she was two years old and grew up going to the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center in Meyerland. The JCC plays a vital role as the “hub” of Meyerland’s Jewish community. Levy currently works as the Director of Jewish Living and Learning at the JCC. Levy helped coordinate immediate Hurricane Harvey relief. The JCC’s facilities flooded over ten feet in some areas of the campus and yet the JCC lead a relief distribution center from their tennis court facilities. The JCC also helped organize free day camps for families who were working on their flooded homes after the storm as well as a variety of programming aimed toward the emotional and economic well being of their community members. Levy discusses the organizational and logistical aspects behind the immediate efforts of the JCC; plans that grew from experiential knowledge from the previous floods of Memorial Day and Tax Day in the previous years. Discussing the technological tools that provided the JCC with the ability to enact their relief plans alongside community connections with other institutions. The JCC provides an example of efficient, community-based natural disaster relief efforts.
Interviewee: Rabbi Jill Levy
Interview Date: April 26, 2018
Interviewer: Liia Thrasher
Transcriber: Liia Thrasher
LT: Today is Thursday April 26, 2018 this is Liia Thrasher interviewing Rabbi Jill Levy, the Director of Jewish Living and Learning at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center. For the UH Center for Public History’s Resilient Houston: Documenting Hurricane Harvey.
LT: First can you just tell me about yourself and your background and how you came to live in Meyerland?
JL: Sure, so I moved to Houston when I was two years old from New Jersey, and I actually grew up across the street from Parker Elementary in Westbury, so, about half a mile from the JCC. I grew up in the JCC doing everything here, and when I graduated high school in ’94, I thought I would never come back to Houston, and fast-forward a million years and in 2013, early-2014, I moved back here with my family and two kids so that we could be closer to grandparents and aunts and uncles. [I] was able to have a position at the JCC, where I grew up, so it was a really special opportunity, and we knew that we wanted to live close in the community and we were able to find a house in this Barkley Square area.
LT: Can you describe your understanding of Jewish Houston and the Meyerland Community, in general?
JL: Sure, so, I’m probably going to get the dates wrong, but I think somewhere around the early 1960s, the Jewish community started transitioning from Downtown/museum-district area, being the hub to this [Meyerland] part of town–Emanu El is sort of like the vestige of the Downtown Houston community, over there. And then most of them moved in-ward; this is sort of considered the suburbs, at that point. And it’s been growing since then. It’s pretty amazing because we have so many giant Jewish communal institutions within a one-to-two mile radius here. We did a population study just recently last year at the [Jewish] Federation [of Greater Houston], it was something like forty percent of the Jewish community lives in what we call this core Meyerland area, even if it’s not technically Meyerland, it’s the Meyerland and surrounding areas here.
LT: What role does the JCC play in the Meyerland community?
JL: I really believe that the JCC is sort of, the central agency of the Jewish community in Meyerland. We consider ourselves the public square of the Jewish community. Our doors are open to everyone: from every denomination–Jewish, non-Jewish community members; members of the center and people who are not members of the center, but might come for something; so we really play that role as a community agency and we take that piece very seriously.
LT: Can you tell me if the JCC flooded with the Tax Day or Memorial Day floods?
JL: During Memorial Day our racquetball courts and our preschool gym flooded. I think we got some minor amounts of water in other areas of the building, but nothing that told us that we had to close our doors, in any kind of capacity. And I believe that those same two areas flooded again with Tax Day. Oh, and then for Memorial Day our Merfish Teen Center, across the street also flooded.
LT: How was Harvey different from those other floods?
JL: Yeah, so I’ll give a couple of examples [laughs]. So clearly the damage, obviously was a big difference. But we were told prior to Harvey (because I was on the lower level–that’s where my office used to be) to take our computers and to put them on top of our desks, just in case we got a little bit of water in on the floor, and then we also took some of our brochures and publications and stuff like that and we put them on a table in our library and I had this brilliant idea that we should cover them with a tarp. Because I assumed that we were going to get water; the water was actually going to come in through the ceiling, which it had done before, instead of through the ground. So I would say that the thing with Harvey was that it really surprised us because it wasn’t that we weren’t expecting to get some kind of water. But nobody was expecting to get the amount of water that we did. That was ten feet on our lower level, which basically shut down our building for seven weeks; our preschool gym flooded again and racquetball court area flooded again; our preschool flooded which hadn’t flooded before; and our fitness center flooded. So really the only building we could really even get into was our detached tennis center.
LT: That tennis center, did it play a role in the immediate relief efforts of Harvey?
JL: Yes, absolutely. So for Memorial Day we had sort of become a staging area for the community, and when I say community, I mean in the broadest sense possible. Where we had boxes and tape and water and all sorts of other supplies available for people to come pick up and use. So we had actually–and this is ironic–started storing those things, just in case we needed, because we had planned on being that community agency again for flood relief. Of course we stored them on our first floor, in our big room there and whatever we had, clearly flooded at that point. But it always was our intention to be that community partner in that. So when we flooded as badly as we did, I think we could have very easily said “you know what, I’m sorry but we really have to address the needs of our building” but we didn’t do that, and we said we still have to play that role in terms of getting supplies and aid out to the members of our community. And we have to make sure that our most vulnerable populations, meaning our elderly and our early childhood are also getting the resources that they need. So that’s how we opened up the tennis center first for supplies for about a week and then we converted it into our preschool.
LT: Can you talk a little bit about the preparations for those immediate relief efforts for the community, how did you get the word out and how did that look in in the planning processes?
JL: Sure, I mean unfortunately we had Memorial Day to go off of, I think at this point everybody kind of already knew what was needed, in terms of what you need in your home to rip up carpets and all those types of supplies that people need immediate access to. And really what we did was, our Executive Vice President put out a call (and we had a Whatsapp group already for emergencies) so he just said whoever isn’t flooded and can get on the phone, let’s get on the phone for our management team. And even for a couple of people who did flood [were] still on the phone every night. And we just kind of divided up the work. My work was that I kind of just worked on a national gift card drive to get resources in from other people so that we can sort of give that cash in hand to people, as they needed it. And then my other role was to work with JCC staff (and that includes all of our staff, we have a few hundred people on staff once we include all of our preschool teachers and bus drivers and everything) and to make sure that they were also getting the immediate help that they needed. There were other people who were working on sort of facilities pieces and trying to get them back online, but really just sort of saying, “these are the immediate needs we need to address and this is how we are going to divide up the work to do it.” That was one. Number two is that we did map out a communication plan and we felt like it was very important to be as transparent as we could with our community. In terms of what the damage was to the building and what our plans were moving forward. And so we were communicating as much as we could as early on as we could. And then I think we really saw ourselves in this role of providing that pastoral presence. And so some of our emails were very much about this is how much water we got and this is what happened to this part of the building and some of them were about Shabbat messages to the community of a piece of Torah that might resonate with them in that moment. Or I remember the first time all of our staff got on the phone for our first staff meeting phone call and doing a blessing for healing with everybody on the phone, and wanting to take care of that emotional piece too. The first Friday that we had our supply distribution going we actually stopped supply distribution for about fifteen minutes to do Shabbat in the tennis center. And just taking that few minutes of just being together because it wasn’t just about handing out tape and boxes, but it was also about being able to see somebody and give them a hug and have that interpersonal connection together.
LT: How do you think that community in the broad sense can learn from the immediate reliefs of the JCC and the kind of steps y’all took so that the larger community can learn from other storms that are coming?
JL: So I think, A, being aware of what is needed ahead of time and sort-of assuming that we would play some sort of role was helpful. I think we do have a pretty strong culture here of just not saying no, in general –for better or worse sometimes, but in this case for the better. It just never occurred to us that we weren’t going to do it so even if you think that you can’t for whatever reason, just knowing that you’ll figure it out and that you can. I think we had a lot of strong relationships in the community, prior to the flood, and that was really important because when we couldn’t operate our preschool here, Shlenker across the street opened their doors to us. Emery/Weiner opened their doors to Beth Yeshurun, and you know, just seeing all, and Beth Yeshurun opened their doors for some of our things, and the church across the street and the YMCA and really it’s not about finding relationships after a disaster occurs, its about having those relationships and building those relationships constantly so that when somebody else is in need you have something in tact. And I think that that other piece that I had talked about before; Joel [Dinkin, Executive Vice President of the JCC] was very intent on this: that we were not going to have a drive through supply distribution. His idea was that people needed to get out of the car because people needed to connect with each other and see each other and I think that that piece is really important. I also want to say that our staff was amazing, but we had a number of lay people who really took charge and helped out. And that staff-lay partnership of being able to work together and make sure that everything that needed to get done was getting done, it was really amazing. And again, if you don’t have that in place already, it’s not going to automatically happen. In that way it was really a shining moment for us for just being able to work together.
LT: Can you talk about the Hurricane Harvey Houston Day camp that happened immediately after the storm and the role that the JCC played in that?
JL: So it’s funny because we partnered with Green Family Camp and my kids go there and I am really close with one of the Camp Directors and she called me one night and she said, “I have this crazy idea, let me know what you think” and she said that we should partner together to operate a free day camp for flood affected families. She was like “what do you think?” And I think she was expecting me to say, “no, no that’s too crazy” and I was like “I think that’s a fantastic idea! Let me put in touch with our camp director.” So her and Anna (and to Anna’s extreme credit, who is brand new in the Camp Director position, I don’t think she thought twice about it, and she said “I think that’s a great idea” And we made it happen and we made it happen with another partner of Emanu El, and we were able to use their space and it was great.
LT: How long did it operate?
JL: A week.
LT: What other kind of post-Harvey, I know that you mentioned that you’re very concerned with the emotional health and the emotional well-being of the community, are there any kinds of programs that y’all have done after, even more recently to help with the issue of mental health?
JL: So I’d say that there is a few things, one is we did have somebody who came here to do a whole kind of like, I didn’t go to it but, it was an hour-long of meditation techniques that can help with, you know, just calming yourself and stress relief and anxiety relief and evidently that was really good. But I think also what we’ve done is that we’ve made a strategic effort to try and understand where our families are living, knowing that many of them may not be able to come to us because they are displaced. And so trying to go to them as much as we can. We’ve had some Shabbat dinners in apartment complexes where we knew that a lot of people were living. Trying to do offsite programs, trying to think strategically about camp and pricing and buses and all of these kinds of things, so that these families don’t feel like they have to go through hurdles just to get back to what was their everyday kind of typical way of living. And just making it as easy as possible for people, as we can.
LT: Can you talk about the Houston Arts Recovery Fund Grant and the program, the Harvey Healing Days: a Relief Effort for Houston. The arts program that was hosted through the JCC on March 25th of this year?
JL: I don’t believe I can.
LT: No problem, can you talk about the current state of the rebuild of the facility and what status y’all are at right now?
JL: Yeah, sure. We are very excited because as of January 1, 2018, a couple of months ago, we were fully up and running with all of our programs back in the building. Our fitness center had reopened. Our preschool was back in the building. Tennis center was operating for tennis. All of these things, so that was great. Our lower level is currently under construction and we hope that that will be open by the end of May. Because we have a million people here in the Summer for camp, so that will be operational for camp. The Merfish Teen Center is back open. Our elevator now is working, which took a long time. So we feel very good where we’re at in terms of just having everything functional and operational and everybody under one roof.
LT: Great. Can you talk about how Hurricane Harvey, since it landed on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, can you talk about how the High Holidays were impacted by that storm?
JL: I can, even though I will correct you, it did not fall on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. Hurricane Harvey was I believe, August 27th and August 28th. And Rosh Hashanah was a couple weeks later, about three weeks later.
LT: The 21st I believe of September to the 22nd.
JL: Yeah, so like three weeks later. So people were really displaced then and we were having a really big family Rosh Hashanah dinner. And so we did that in the tennis center. Because space was at a premium then, so we literally set up tables and chairs and decorations and everything. And it really worked out really beautifully and we made it free and just for whoever could come and it was really nice. And in Synagogue I just think that was what everyone was really on their mind and what Rabbis were talking about and I think some people just also just couldn’t figure out how to get out of wherever they were and attendance, you know, numbers were low, I would say through the end of the year. Just because people were so overwhelmed with everything that they had to do also.
LT: How did the community, or how did you think that the fabric of the community going forward in Meyerland will look after these three consecutive floods? And how do you think its changing or how do you think it will remain the same?
JL: Yeah, look, I think nobody really knows. I think there’s a lot of anxiety around that. Anything that I can say is basically a guess. But kind of from what I can tell and see is that, I think a lot of houses are getting knocked down and are getting raised five or six feet off the ground or its an existing house that’s getting raised. And especially these new builds are going for a million, a million and a half dollars and I think economically, it’s actually going to further push out some people because they are not going to be able to—I mean it’s kind of ironic because they’re not going to be able to afford the houses, there are going to be these really nice, new developments. I think that there is a fear that people will choose not to live in this area because of the flooding also, and so the question remains of where are people going to go? And I think there’s a lot of not knowing, a lot of people for themselves have not decided. “Am I going to rebuild?” “Am I going to move?” “Am I going to just remodel and hope for the best?” So yeah I think time will tell.
LT: Can you tell me about your personal experience during Harvey? What was going on and how were you in contact with the JCC during the storm itself before you were able to come to the facilities?
JL: Yeah, so in our house we live very close to here, but we had not flooded previously. And I would say that we were worried but we weren’t scared. So I think we kind of assumed that our house was going to be fine and the water came up to probably around the doorstep and no further. And the next day I decided to take the kids and sleep at a friend’s house across the street who was a little bit higher up than me. Just because I felt like I didn’t want to have to deal with bringing the kids in the water, in the middle of the night, should we flood. In retrospect it was completely unnecessary, that god, but um you just kind of make those preparations as you need to for your family that did that — just sought a little bit higher ground. My sister’s house did flood, so we were in touch with her and my husband actually, she went to go sleep at my dads house so my husband was actually the first one to see her house after it had flooded because she couldn’t get back across the Bayou to go and see it. I was sleeping at a staff members house that night and so we were just getting a bunch of emails, Facebook messages, whatever, from people kind of watching our co-workers and friends kind of experience their own flooding and then the next morning she had received a picture of somebody who had come here and seen the amount of water that had gotten into the building and so it was at that point that she and I together were kind of like, “what just happened?”–you know it’s weird now to think that you would be shocked by it but, we really, um, we were shocked but it. Yeah.
LT: So, can you talk about –you talked about this before: Facebook and some other digital platforms that really helped in the relief efforts, I was looking at the relief page at the JCC before and I saw there were amazon wish lists being circulated to people that are concerned about Houston from outside of the city or even outside of the state, I think this person was from Minneapolis, that had commented on there. Can you talk about the relief efforts from outside that came into Houston and how you were able to use social media or just in general how that worked?
JL: Yeah, so look, there were a lot of concerned people nationally that really wanted to help us and I think that part of it was getting people to help us in appropriate ways. And by appropriate I mean, in ways that we actually needed that help. So we had lots of people that wanted to bring us their old clothing or their entire libraries or whatever. Things that we did not really have the volunteer capacity to sift through or absorb. Or people aren’t’ even really in their houses, and can’t really receive boxes of books, [be]cause nobody really has places to put anything. So we really focused on gift card drives, [be]cause we knew that would just be useful no matter what, and also immediately, and then the Amazon Wish list was to get people to focus their donations so that we could get things for the school and for the building, whatever, or what people needed that we actually knew that were actual needs. So I worked nationally with Jewish Community Center Association and they sent out an email to all of the JCCs around the country. So email was a great tool, that National kind of tool, and obviously posting everything on Facebook just makes everything go rally quickly as well. I am not like a huge Twitter or Instagram user, I don’t know how useful it would have been since all the people who were donating to us were probably were also more on Facebook, kind of mood. But email and Facebook were big for us.
LT: How much of the community came to receive some of those initial relief efforts, do y’all have any idea? And what was the kind of general reaction and general kind of atmosphere of that process?
JL: Yeah, honestly I’m so bad at estimating numbers and somebody might be better. Definitely in the hundreds if not higher than that. And I think everybody was really supportive of us and people just wanted to help and I think the most beautiful things that I saw was that there were people that had flooded who specifically made time to come and help out there so that they could also go and help other people. And for me, that was so completely inspiring. I didn’t flood so I had all this time, but I couldn’t imagine flooding and also saying “okay, and I’m also going to donating my time to help other people.” It was pretty powerful.
LT: That’s amazing. Are there any stories that you’ve heard or that you know of that you feel are emblematic of the Meyerland community and it’s efforts post Harvey?
JL: I think the fact that Beth Israel opened their doors to our preschool who in theory should be a competitor of ours. And also they opened them to Beth Yeshurun, which is a competitor of theirs, I think really shows the communal nature of who we are as a Jewish community. That Beth Yeshurun opened their doors, that nobody was out for themselves, everybody was just out to help each other as much as possible. The fact that we had so many volunteers come here. And I also think that it wasn’t just JCC members or the immediate Jewish community or Meyerland community who came to get supplies but people clearly heard about it from all over and so the fact that we were able to have so many people from all over the Houston area come get supplies from us was pretty amazing.
LT: I know you said everything was back up and running at this moment now, how has your daily life or your daily duties here at the JCC changed at all, if any?
JL: So they did for sure, I would say for at least two months, if not longer, because everything was just flood relief focused and making sure that we were making sure that we were doing all of our programs and adjusting our programs to make sure that people could come to them, whether they were free, or somewhere else, or whatever. Dealing with all the gift cards and making sure that staff had money and resources that they needed and just moving. And the preschool had it the worst because they moved from the tennis center over to the Merfish and then back to here [laugh] you know it was just kind of crazy. And in a Rabbi kind of role, just putting those messages out there and having those opportunities for Jewish connection. And having a new office and then getting used to that and finding some bookshelves, and finding some books and you know, those things that you take for granted of: “where’s my stapler?” and just kind of getting that daily routine up and running.
LT: How do you think your faith played a role in your experience during Harvey and after with the post Harvey relief?
JL: I think it does a few things. One, is I think the beauty of Jewish wisdom is that it helps give a language and some articulation at a time that is very difficult to find words to express how you feel. So the fact that we have a blessing for healing that we can say and offer is an amazing spiritual tool for when you need it. The fact that we have this idea of Shabbat, where you just take time to rest and decompress and breathe and give a hug to somebody. The fact that we are able to implement that even in the business of having all of the supply distribution and say, “okay, that’s important, but it’s also important to have this moment of connection.” I think is just an amazing tool and piece of wisdom to have at our disposal. I think that the emphasis on the community and helping each other and for me Jewish tradition, being godlike, means that you go and you help clothe people that don’t have clothes, or you help feed people who don’t have food. It’s so much in our tradition to feel compelled to help other people in that way.
LT: Are there any other points or anecdotes that you would like to contribute to the Hurricane Harvey project?
JL: I feel a lot of gratitude for this community and this city and I think that people use the term “Houston Strong,” but I think it’s really true that people really wanted to take care of each other and help each other. That’s an important lesson to move forward with.