“I hold that while man exists, it is his duty to improve not only his own condition, but to assist in ameliorating mankind.” —Abraham Lincoln
On a sunny but chilly morning a few weeks ago, I had a fascinating conversation with a Houstonian taxi driver who drove me across town from one of Houston’s poorest neighborhoods towards the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC.
The taxi picked me up from what has been for more than 60 years the home of Miss Johnnie Gibson. Since Hurricane Harvey swept through in August, this has been a deserted, ruined house, left behind, torn and bare, silently telling the story of Hurricane Harvey’s devastating forces.
Jimmy, the taxi driver, asked me what was I doing there with a group of 20 others, all busy looking like diligent ants set to take over a project. I shared with Jimmy that I was accompanying a group from JCC Association’s board of directors, who had traveled from across North America to meet in Houston. They had agreed to meet in Houston as part of the board’s annual meeting so they could take a day to volunteer, help those in need, repair the world.
I also told Jimmy that I was on my way to the JCC to meet a group of 22 JCCs’ shlichim (Israeli emissaries) and their supervisors from 11 JCCs from the United States and Canada, all convening in Houston, and like our board members, devoting a day to volunteer to rebuild Miss Johnnie Gibson’s home, so that after six months she can finally find serenity surrounded by her own walls.
Jimmy couldn’t believe what he had just heard. A group of Jews from across North America joined by a group of Israelis, all in Houston to volunteer in a low-income neighborhood, where a modest church oversees the block and reflects the faith of its residents.
I realized from Jimmy’s surprised expression that what seemed like an incredibly honorable and noble act of kindness to a random taxi driver, was actually the obvious thing to do to us.
It was that moment, on a jammed highway in Houston, that Jimmy turned on the lightbulb hanging above my head and filled it with bright light, honor and pride. Pride in being part of an organization whose extremely committed board members put everything aside and join together to repair Miss Johnnie Gibson’s home, while the rest of our board was busy at a local foodbank preparing the following day’s meals for more than 3,000 school-age children.
This was the second time JCC Association’s board has elected to lend a hand. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, where 80 percent of the city of New Orleans flooded, the board also chose social action to help repair a devastated city.
Houston is still scarred. It will take many more days and many more volunteers to fully repair all the flooded homes and buildings.
One of these buildings is the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC. Although tremendously damaged, the JCC didn’t let Harvey stop it—not even for a day—from continuing to serve the community through its “Meals on Wheels” program and other services. The JCC building is almost fully rebuilt, its warm welcoming lobby, not too long ago completely flooded, invites all community members to enjoy its programs and services, but more than anything to be part of family.
As an Israeli used to being grateful for aid coming to Israel from people living beyond its borders, Jews and non-Jews worldwide, this day in Houston was especially rewarding.
Knowing that my Israeli government, through my tax money contributed $1 million to Houston’s efforts to rebuild the city was a moment of pride. Lending a hand to those in need, whether they were Jews or members of other faith communities guides us through this journey we are all part of.
Today, many in the U.S. remember Abraham Lincoln, the country’s 16th president. Lincoln led the country through its most turbulent period, one of civil war, toward becoming a nation of human beings—humble, compassionate, equal and caring. People who “assist in ameliorating mankind.”
That long day in Houston of cleaning away debris, removing damaged siding, painting new siding and nailing it in place was a sacred day. We may have seemed dusty but we actually shined. This day was one of the most meaningful days in my life, a day I was so proud to be associated with JCC Association, led by a committed board of directors for whom tikkun olam (repairing the world) and community building are not just phrases, but what truly guides its daily actions.
“You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.” (Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:21)
Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center