Timely Thoughts

A Jewish Story of Two Hurricanes

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Adam Starr

We live in divisive times. The American political scene has become hyper-partisan. The President—whether you like him or not—has created tremendous discord. These conditions have strengthened radical extremism, as witnessed by the sinister events in Charlottesville featuring Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

For us, it is also very unfortunate to observe a more pronounced wedge between the State of Israel and much of American Jewish community. We read polarizing positions over the establishment of an egalitarian space at the Kotel. Similar forces surround the infamous “black list” of rabbis deemed untrustworthy, according to the Rabbanut, to vouch for their congregants’ Jewish status. In the Modern Orthodox community, we have seen the raging debate over women’s clergy with threats of expulsion of certain synagogues who employ women in these capacities. The discourse has become disrespectful and our world feels deeply divided.

Yet, the last couple of weeks have given me much hope. I refer to the efforts and care that my community in Atlanta demonstrated in our response to Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma.

Harvey Relief
In the aftermath of Harvey, a group of Atlantans from Young Israel Toco Hills—my shul—and Congregation Beth Jacob traveled to Houston, to assist in the cleanup efforts. Rabbi Ilan Feldman and I accompanied these courageous volunteers. We spent much of our time assisting within the devastated United Orthodox Synagogue community. We pulled out drywall, removed ruined property and boxed up waterlogged sacred books to deposit in shaimos. We felt to assist our fellow Jews in their time of need.

Preparing to board the plane back to Atlanta, our group heard about people from Florida who were looking to travel to Atlanta to avoid the new “Category 5” hurricane, named Irma, that was forming and projected to hit their area. We spread the word through social media and by contacting shuls that the Atlanta community was opening its doors for all those evacuating.

Irma Support
By the time we landed in Atlanta, we received seventy requests for hospitality! That number continued to grow, a tally that finally reached about 1,500 people. This was an extremely complex task making what we called “shiddukhim” between Atlanta hosts and Florida guests based on family size and special family needs such as pets.

Volunteers, some who had just returned from Houston, worked day and night for three days to ensure that everyone who wanted to spend Shabbat (and beyond) in Atlanta would have a place to stay. They did not need to consider all of the nuances and divisions in Orthodox life. We didn’t have time to distinguish based on styles of Orthodox headcoverings and “hashkafah.” In fact, the expression of Jewish unity spread beyond the Orthodox community as local Reform Temple upon learning of the many evacuees our Orthodox community had taken in, sent over kosher food and bottled water to do their share in support of our efforts.

In the end, our Florida guests came as strangers and left as family. With awesome communal Shabbat meals and a spirited “Motzei Shabbat Unity Kumzitz,” we witnessed and experienced this sentiment of ahdut Yisrael. After all, the holiday of Sukkot is a great symbol of unity. Vayikra Rabbah 30:12 teaches that the Arba Minim represent different types of Jews that God commands to bind together as an “agudah ahat,” symbolizing the Jewish people’s togetherness.

A Universal Mission
Sukkot is not just particular to Jewish peoplehood. There’s a universalistic nature to Sukkot, so the Jews offered seventy bulls in the Temple to represent the world’s seventy biblical nations. That’s Rashi’s message on Bamidbar 29:18: “The bullocks offered on the Feast of Tabernacles are seventy in all, in allusion to the seventy nations of the world.” This was also our response to the hurricanes. Our community came together, for humanity’s sake.

When we were working in Houston, one member of our contingent found a Muslim family whose home had been devastated by the flooding. Off we went to this home, proudly wearing our kippot, to assist a clearly religious Muslim family. At first, it was somewhat awkward and perhaps uncomfortable. But, within a few minutes, it was inspiring to observe that through working together in this time of great need we were able to connect to this wonderful family. They thanked us, and asked to pose for a picture. We embraced and blessed one another, before departing. It’s moments like this one that prove that our shared humanity is greater than what divides us.

That sense of of connecting with good people across faiths was also felt when the weather remnants of Irma reached Atlanta on Monday, September 11. The storm knocked down power lines. If power lines go down that could also mean the eruv is down. We received an e-mail from Karen Zimmerman, the associate pastor at Peachtree Baptist Church, just down the street from Beth Jacob, informing us that “Someone in our church noticed that the Eruv that connects our church may have been damaged recently, and so I’m contacting you in the hopes that someone from your synagogue can look after it.”

In response, thanking her for letting us know and sharing that all is okay with the eruv, she wrote “It’s such a relief to me to hear that the Eruv is intact … I can only imagine what it means to your community and I’m glad that everything is in working order. It’s a privilege to be your neighbors and we’re more than happy to have the Eruv set up on our property. And especially in the current social and political climate—please let us know if there are more tangible ways we can express our love and support to your congregation.”

Theoretically, the Talmud (Sukkah 27b) teaches, if a sukkah was large enough, all the Jews could fulfill their mitzvah in one massive hut. Normally, we all divide into our separate “sukkot,” even within the small Orthodox community. Different schools, shuls, and social circles. Recent events made us realize how large our community is. What happened last month in Atlanta brought our Toco Hills community, all of its different looking parts, together.

Adam Starr
Rabbi Adam Starr is the spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Toco Hills in Atlanta since his arrival in 2008. Under Rabbi Starr's leadership the membership has grown to 215 member units and has built a brand new state of the art fully accessible synagogue building that is the the first Orthodox synagogue in the world built from ground up according to environmentally sustainable standards.