Helping Hands… And The Power Of Their Tools

Michael Simmons, FSA, ATz – Executive Director, Congreagtion Har Shalom, Potomac, MD
Vice President, NAASE

Last week, I was humbled as a Jew and a human being. To do our part of Tikun Olam, the Board of Governors of the North American Association of Synagogue Administrators (NAASE) spent Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday in Biloxi, Mississippi.

On Tuesday evening, we met with the President of Congregation Beth Israel, the Past President of Beth Israel who was coordinating a toiletries collection for Katrina victims who were living in trailer parks, and a representative of Helping Hands (a wonderful not-for-profit organization that is helping tens of thousands Katrina victims). They all told us about what Katrina had done and explained that we really couldn’t understand it until we saw it. After the discussions, on behalf of Congregation Har Shalom, I donated a completely filled large duffle bag of toiletries collected at Har Shalom, to the trailer park collection effort.

On Wednesday, we were privileged to meet some wonderful volunteers at Helping Hands. Through the graciousness of a local Biloxi Church, Helping Hands has taken over their Gym – which is being used as a volunteer coordinating center and housing for the volunteers. Additionally, through the graciousness of the Church, they have given Beth Israel use of their Fellowship Hall for as long as the Shul needs it. We spent the rest of the day with Charlie (our Helping Hands Crew Captain) gutting a home. Spending most of the day wielding a crow bar, I ripped up floorboards. The work was very strenuous for all, but together we ripped out the floorboards, removed insulation from the attic and the crawl space, demolished the remains of a bathroom, removed heating and air conditioning units, etc. Throughout the day, we used Helping Hands tools and Charlie directed us. As it turns out, there are over 40,000 homes that need this kind of demolition in order to be fixed up. Our group was very thankful to Bobbi, the next-door neighbor, who was working on her home with her two sons and offered us her bathroom. She was one of the lucky homes that had running water. Unplanned, Roger,the owner of the home stopped by. He told us that he stops by twice a day to see his house and said that his story was not unusual. Roger is retired. Over more than thirty years, he paid State Farm Insurance over $800,000, and collected only $25,000 for the damage to his home. Roger was able to purchase another home, but needs to sell his old home to make it work. He has gaut and cannot do any of the work. Later that afternoon, Roger returned with a picture of his family and thanked us. At the end of the day, there was an extremely large pile of garbage in front of the house for pickup (whenever that would be).

Down the street from Roger’s house was the water. There was a sign that said that it was unsafe to swim. We asked and learned that it was unsafe because of the debris that was still there. In other words, don’t swim because a tree might collide with you. We were also told that a house was floating the day before. There are still 300 people missing and we were told that if they were washed away by Katrina, they will never be found.

That evening, we began to ache in muscles that we had not used in years. It was a good feeling to know that we had helped one family. Roger was a Presbyterian who, until we met him, did not know that there was a Jewish Congregation in Biloxi.

We began Thursday morning, by participating in the first Service at Beth Israel since Katrina. The members of the congregation, who were there, had the aliyot and the honors. The building, although still standing, is currently unusable due to the mold. In two months that congregation will decide to rebuild or move to an area where many of the Jewish population is moving to.

Although I had already seen homes that were demolished by Katrina, when we were told that on Tuesday evening that we could not understand it until we saw it, I had no basis of understanding what was yet to come.

After leaving Beth Israel, we began to tour the devastation. There were hundreds of beautiful southern mansions partially or totally reduced to rubble; there was the office building that Katrina had taken out the entire first floor (only the steel beams were left) and the rest of the building was standing; there was the Super-Walmart that Katrina blew out all of the windows and removed all of the contents – all that was left was the concrete walls with the ability to see through from one end of the building to the other. The worst was yet to come. We drive through Gulfport… I have never seen a ghost town before! Gulfport is a city with buildings standing, some damage, and very few people. Most buildings are as they were when Katrina hit, some of the store owners have moved back, and there are very few people. Then we passed the railroad tracks and entered the worst area. I cannot begin to describe the devastation. We learned that the water was as high as 50 feet in this area, flooded 100 miles wide, and that it took 8 hours for the water to flow back.

Given everything that I saw, I really felt that I had been in a third world country or an area that had been bombed out. Having talked to the folks on Roger’s street on Tuesday, the consensus is that it will be five to ten years until there is a sense of normalcy. The military and the National Guard were there in the beginning but have left. What is left is 1000 homeless people, 100,000 people living in trailers, people living in tents, people who need to go to a homeless shelter to get food, and devastation on a scale that is unimaginable.

Biloxi has taught me some things and reminded me of others: When my colleagues and I were ripping out the floor boards, I realized that not all colleagues were using the same tools or the same techniques to rip out the floor boards in the house… different tools, different techniques, within the same house which reminded me of Klal Yisrael (the Community of Israel). After bearing witness to this horrific natural disaster and being concerned about the beginning of Hurricane season (100,000 people living in trailers and tens of thousands of homes with roof tarps), I am reminded that we should appreciate what we have and do our part to help others.

You may wish to read how simple but resolute actions inspire others… how caring has never gone out of style… and how a team of NAASE Executives and Friends made a difference in our time! Read the original article fro the Washington Jewish Week: Broadway to Biloxi.

Yasher koach to each of them and to all others less visible, who perfom the holy work of tikkun olam.