Disasters: Learning and Reacting (Hurricane Katrina)

Dear Rabbi Fried,

There’s been much talk about the correct Jewish reaction to Katrina, as we discussed in last week’s column. Much praiseworthy action has been taken by our Jewish community. Our own Dallas Jewish Federation has already raised some $75,000. The coordinated community relief efforts are being handled by Jewish Family Service, and my organization, DATA, is presently holding a food drive for non-perishable food items in conjunction with Jewish Family Service.

I was very much moved by a personal story of a Jewish Katrina evacuee, which I saw on aish.com. I have chosen to share with you excerpts of this story, as it best expresses many of the points I wanted to make in today’s column.

I would like to preface with one point, however; the occurrences here with Katrina should not allow us to forget the plight of our brethren who recently were removed from their own homes and saw their communities destroyed in Gaza. If anything, it should bring their plight closer to home. At the same time, we extend our generosity to the victims of Katrina, we should extend at least equal generosity to our own brothers and sisters in our own Land. 

Now the story:

Katrina, picking up the pieces

My wife and children are safe; they sleep quietly in our small rented room…

My wife and children are safe, yes, but our car, our home, our sifrei kodesh (holy books), our toys, our clothes, our furniture, and our pots and pans are all gone, submerged under 10 feet of water. We have only the few items that my forward-looking wife managed to assemble before we joined the close to million other refugees fleeing the path of Hurricane Katrina. Our family of four can travel in a single suitcase, I’ve learned.

The questions we Jews do not ask: Why me? Why did this tragedy happen to me? We don’t ask these questions for several reasons. We don’t ask these questions precisely because we can ask these questions; hundreds, if not thousands, of people were killed by rising floodwaters and wretched living conditions, yet God enabled us to survive. Families with children were trapped on the roofs of their houses; elderly and infirm passed away when they couldn’t receive dialysis, necessary medicines, and medical treatment.

Even though we are homeless and possession-less, we are quite lucky: we are alive and healthy.

We also don’t ask “How could God do this to me?” because we know that everything has a purpose, even if we don’t understand it. Our sages teach us that eventually, we’ll be able to make a blessing on “good” things just like the “bad” things — so that, as hard as it is to believe, we’ll praise God the same way that we do for getting a raise as when we are fired from our job. In this case, we made the blessing Baruch Dayan HaEmet — God is the true judge. We don’t understand why the Creator would destroy a city of 1.2 million people through flooding in the same way that we don’t understand why people are starving in Africa or dying in genocide in Central Europe. As believing Jews we trust that God has logic and reasoning far beyond ours.

The night after we fled from New Orleans, spending 14 hours in the car to go less than 350 miles, we arrived at a small hotel packed with others fleeing the storm. Everyone was panicky, edgy and desperate for news. I saw in our experiences in this cramped hotel some small portion of what our ancestors felt about their real home, the Land of Israel, after they were exiled to Babylonia, Africa, and the other countries of the Diaspora. I imagine that Jewish families would press visitors from Israel for details: How is my family? How is my household? Do I still have a store there? What are the occupiers doing to our people?

So too we refugees from the Crescent City sought comfort from over-hyped news reports, from aborted cell phone calls, from the newcomers who could tell us what happened. “How about Canal Boulevard?” we asked. “Do you know anything about my home?” “Is the looting as bad as we have heard?” We clung to every tidbit, longing to feel some measure of security. The definition of being in exile means that such security will always be hard, if not impossible, to feel fully.


Yerachmiel Fried

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