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CARING SYNAGOGUES, AND THEIR PEOPLE, ARE BRIGHT SPOT IN TIMES OF NATURAL DISASTER

From a Rabbi’s Study to Diapers and Much Loved Pews, Donations Pour in

Research has shown that natural disasters—from hurricanes to wildfires—bring out the best in people. That’s certainly been true in the aftermath of August’s record-breaking Hurricane Harvey in Southern Texas, Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico and October’s menacing wildfires in Northern California.

Throughout our Pacific Southwest Region kehilla (Jewish community), caring people who knew someone, who knew someone, who knew someone—or perhaps knew no one at all—personally affected by these disasters, quickly sprung into action with ideas to help minimize the impact and speed the recovery. Here are some of their stories.

School in Houston Inherits an Entire Library


At Adat Ari El in Valley Village, California, Director of Supplemental Education Julee Levine, who, as part of her role, is director of the synagogue’s JLC (religious school), was sitting in her office in the days following Hurricane Harvey when one of the 5th grade teachers, Becky Kabaker, came in saying, “The kids have a proposal for you. They’d like you to come by the room.”

Intrigued, Julee headed there immediately. The 5th grade class had been talking about the hurricane destruction and Becky had shared that a friend teaches at Houston’s Beth Yeshurun Day School. “They lost almost everything with the flooding—their building, their books…it devastated the entire school,” Julee says. “The kids asked what they could do and came up with an idea.”

The idea was this: To collect new and used books for children, from 18 months through 12 years old, and put out a donation jar to cover the shipping to Houston. “In that adorable way that kids do, they really thought of everything,” says Julee. “I said to them, ‘You collect the books and we’ll find a donor for the shipping.’”

The 5th graders set out to make it happen. They created a graphic to post and hand out. Meanwhile, Julee met with the synagogue’s executive and development directors who agreed it was a tremendous opportunity to get the larger community involved. They shared it throughout the synagogue in all communications, talked about it at programs and during services and even included it in High Holiday announcements. Before Rosh Hashanah had arrived, the book bins were filled to the brim and emptied twice.

“Books were coming in from everywhere,” explains Julee. “Families who were cleaning out their homes or had stored old books nicely in their garages donated books. Our day school just finished reorganizing their library so they were able to make a large donation. Our rabbi emeritus was no longer going to use his study, so he donated his collection because the school had lost a lot of their scholarly books as well.”

With Mizvah Day on Sunday, November 5th the deadline for all book donations, Adat Ari El made one of the day’s activities to finish sorting and packing all the books and numbering the boxes. The 5th graders, parents and members of the synagogue’s young professional community turned out eager to help. They even wrote personal notes to include in every box shipped.

“We know that the books arrived on November 10th and that the school is hoping to move back in, at least partly, around the 1st of the year,” shares Julee. When they do, they’ll have an amazing new library of books from their friends in Southern California and other communities that made the effort to show they care. “Our kids took this so seriously,” she adds, “and took such pride in their ability to help out a community that is really just like our own.”

To learn more about Adat Ari El, click here.

Diapers and Coins Go to Those Who Need Them Most

The youth and teens of Temple Beth Sholom of the East Valley in Chandler, Arizona, don’t just talk the talk; they walk the walk when it comes to doing mitzvahs that show their human kindness to others. Case in point: They recently held two hugely successful drives to help out communities impacted by natural disasters.

First, when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in August and the synagogue community began to see the widespread devastation to families there, Youth Director and Religious Educator Sarah Bochenek reached out to the synagogue’s SA/TO program student board member to see what they might do. Together, they determined there was a real need for something very basic: diapers. “We just jumped right into it,” says Sarah—reaching out to the synagogue’s youth through text messages, social media, e-mails and in person at services. “In just a few weeks, we had raised $2,000 through cash, checks and Paypal donations.”

Finding the perfect recipient of these donations proved to be a little more challenging, but worth the effort. At first, they reached out to the American Red Cross who was understandably overwhelmed. The USY leaders in Houston were also too busy. Then, they called Darren Klein, regional teen engagement director for Far West USY, who happened to be at the USY Convention in Chicago. He spoke with Houston’s USY regional director at the conference, who recommended Texas Diaper Bank. It’s a non-profit organization that works to meet the needs of vulnerable babies, children with disabilities and seniors.

Ultimately, Temple Beth Sholom of the East Valley’s youth and teens were able to purchase 4,560 diapers, 2,844 wipes, 750 bed pads and 470 adult diapers and send them through Amazon Smile to the Texas Diaper Bank for distribution.

Then came October, when wildfires quickly spread throughout Northern California and leveled much of Camp Newman, the treasured retreat in the hills north of Santa Rosa that has served as a summer camp for thousands of Jewish kids over the past two decades. “My kids were really upset about it,” says Sarah, so they turned their sadness into something more productive: a fun and competitive coin drive to support the camp’s recovery efforts

SA/TO representatives from throughout Arizona, including Scottsdale, Tucson, Glendale and Chandler where Temple Beth Sholom is located, took the initiative to have a group call. They came up with the coin drive idea. It’s similar to penny wars, a fundraising technique where groups compete against one another in collecting buckets full of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters for a great cause. Plus, they determined a just reward for the USY chapter that raised the most: The winning chapter gets to dump a bucket of water on their SA/TO chair.


The coin drive will run until the first night of Chanukah, when the money will be added up and sent to Camp Newman. “It’s all coins so we’ll have to figure out how we’re going to do that,” says Sarah, who adds, “Now, we’re talking to Congregation Beth Yeshurun, who was affected by Hurricane Harvey, to see how we can help out there. My kids are super amazing and when they come up with ideas like these, I let them run with them.”

To learn more about Temple Beth Sholom of the East Valley, click here.

Families Have a “Ball” For Great Cause

Every year, the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center in Pasadena, California, looks forward to a bowling event put on for its youth and teens and their families to raise money for a great cause. This year, the cause was clear: With Hurricane Harvey devastating Houstans a few months earlier, the event on the evening of November 7th would be dedicated to providing some relief.

The SA/TO chair on the synagogue’s USY board came up with the idea for this year’s event, an e-blast went out and 50 RSVPs quickly rolled in from Kadima youth, USY teens and their family members. The temple cancelled religious school on the night of the event so everyone who wanted to could attend.

The Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center rented out eight lanes at the nearby AMF Bowling in Arcadia for the evening. Then, they divided the participants by age and skill level and tried to involve the parents as much as possible. They also brought in some cheese pizza and spoke about Hurricane Harvey. Additionally, they had a visiting Noam teen share stories about Israel.

“It was very laid back,” says Youth Director Alanna Sanford. “It was about having fun with families and being educated on the hurricane and Israel.”

Since the temple received a discounted group rate, they were able to mark up the cost to attendees. The difference is what they’ll be donating to Hurricane Harvey relief, and they’re now in the process of counting up the donation and deciding which organization will best receive and distribute it.

Meanwhile, an incredible time was had by all. “They all seemed like they had a wonderful time hanging out,” says Alanna. “I heard a lot of the kids saying it was one of the most fun events they’d been to.”

To learn more about the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, click here.

Much Loved Pews Get a New Life in Houston

Some things in life are simply bashert (destiny)—like the intersection of Temple Beth Am’s readiness to replace their 350 much loved High Holiday pews in their Los Angeles, California, synagogue, with the need for new pews, among other things, that arose for Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey hit and left the synagogue in ruins.

Since the two synagogue’s executive directors already knew each other, Sheryl Goldman in Los Angeles reached out to Lu Dorfman in Houston to offer up the pews from their remodel and the rest is history—well, sort of. That’s because transporting the pews 1,600 miles and across state lines is not an easy or inexpensive task. Plus, time was not on their side with the High Holidays quickly approaching.

In fact, Sheryl had just hours to raise the money it would take to move the pews via an 18-wheeler truck to their new home in Houston. The Temple Beth Am congregation and extended community proved up to the challenge. They raised nearly $15,000 in less than one hour. It came from USCJ’s (the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) Disaster Relief Fund, the RPO Group of Los Angeles’ Jewish Federation, the Freeman Group—who is leading Temple Beth Am’s remodel—and the temple’s own Helping Hands and Rabbi’s discretionary fund, as well as private donors. “I think people found it meaningful to contribute money toward something so concrete,” says Sheryl.

While Congregation Beth Yeshurun was thrilled to receive the pews in late October, a substantial recovery still lies ahead for this synagogue. But, as Lu told Sheryl, he’s already looking forward to how he can pay it forward after his congregation enjoys the much loved pews. “These are not going to be permanent seats for us,” he says. “I’m sure that somebody, somewhere, at some point in the future is going to have a need for them.”

To learn more about Temple Beth Am, click here.

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