Zack Bodner (center, back row) and the mitzvah team in Houston.
Zack Bodner (center, back row) and the mitzvah team in Houston.

Hanukkah in Houston, shedding a sweet light in darkness

When you’re on a mission to do what’s right, you never know where light might surprise you in the darkness.

It was Tuesday, Dec. 12. Our group had pulled up to the house in southwest Houston at 8 a.m. just as the owner was driving up herself. Shivering in the cold, she greeted us with a mixture of warm appreciation and sad exhaustion. Her name was Sheryl and she was living in a tent in her backyard because of massive mold infestation. Last week it snowed in Houston, making it too cold to sleep outside, but she had run a GoFundMe campaign that had raised just enough money to allow her to stay in a hotel for a week.

Sheryl’s house had suffered from massive flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the unprecedented Category 4 storm that hit Texas in August.

This was where we would spend the next three days doing the tedious work of mold remediation, which means scrubbing, scraping and spraying the exposed floor boards, linoleum glue and asbestos-covered wall studs. Only after our work was done could new drywall be installed. But Sheryl will have to pay for that piece herself, and since she has no insurance and hasn’t received any FEMA funding yet, there is no telling when that will happen.

David O’Shea and Lisa Stein perform mold remediation on a home in Houstonm December 2017.
David O’Shea and Lisa Stein perform mold remediation on a home in Houston, December 2017.

The day before, our delegation of eight from the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto and Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos had traveled from San Francisco to Houston to help with Hurricane Harvey relief work as part of the Oshman Family JCC Mitzvah Corps.

Tuesday morning began very early for us, driving out to Faith Methodist Church for our orientation with All Hands and Hearts. The group we chose to partner with organizes volunteers for disaster relief all over the world, and its motto is “We arrive early and we stay late.” Taube Philanthropies made a million-dollar grant to the group, so partnering with them was a no-brainer.

The young woman who led the orientation shared how the organization was founded in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. She said they planned to stay in Houston for two years helping with the Hurricane Harvey cleanup, long after the news cycle has moved on. When she was done with her welcome remarks, we walked to the back of the church where a spare building was turned into a makeshift hostel and home base for over 80 volunteers and a handful of staff. Row upon row of boots were lined up, and at first we didn’t understand if we were meant to choose a pair for ourselves. But when the young volunteers, many wandering around barefoot, went to the shoe pile, we understood that these shoes were already spoken for.

The group leader quickly read off the assignments from the big white board and sent everyone on their way. Our team leader, Laura, sent us to the house where we would work while she went to grab our tools and meet us there.

From the outside of Sheryl’s home, everything looked normal. Giant piles of debris sat on the front curb of every few houses, but other than that, it looked like life was going on as usual in the neighborhood. You’d never know that so many of these houses were unfit for anyone to step into without wearing emergency hazmat suits.

When Sheryl opened the door to let us in for a quick tour, the smell of mildew and mold wafted out. Immediately, we could see there were no floors and no walls below the flood 4-foot flood line, only naked 2-by-4s. Sheryl took us to the backyard where her German shepherd puppy was so happy to see her that she peed all over the place in her excitement.

Sheryl’s backyard was ringed by piles of warped lumber leaning against the walls of her house. She opened the garage door and a terrible stink hit us like a punch in the nose. Everything that could be salvaged from the flood was stacked in mildewy piles in her garage, alongside the garbage. She told us she couldn’t put the garbage out, except for the one day a week it was picked up, because that was an invitation for looters. She’d learned that the hard way, since looters had already stolen the copper out of her washer and dryer, making them totally useless.

After the hurricane, her son — one of her seven kids — had told her he wanted to drop out of high school, where he was a freshman. Sheryl started to tear up as she told us how she made the tough call and sent the four kids who were still living at home to live with family in two different parts of Texas so they could stay in school and not be distracted by the mess back in Houston. This would also give her a break so she could study because she’d re-enrolled in college to finally get her degree, a decision she’d made before the hurricane. She told us she had an exam later in the day for her math class, and I wondered if the rings under her eyes were from staying up late studying or not sleeping because of bigger worries.

As Sheryl was thanking us, Laura and her All Hands team arrived and asked us to come to the front of the house. She told us that would be the last time we would be in the house without full protective gear, which included ventilator masks, hard hats, two pairs of gloves — latex surgical gloves covered by leather work gloves — eye protection, paper suits and knee pads. We suited up and went back inside to receive our assignments.

OFJCC Board member Oshman Family JCC board member Sharon Leslie works to make a house livable for Houston residents, December 2017.
OFJCC Board member Oshman Family JCC board member Sharon Leslie suited up for mitzvah work, December 2017.

The bulk of the work involved being on our hands and knees scraping the linoleum glue off the floor. The linoleum had already been removed, but mold had settled underneath the glue and before a new floor could be installed, we needed to scrape. And scrape we did. All day long. With tiny paint scrapers and hammers and mineral spirits to soften the glue.

After an hour of this grueling work, during which each of us cleared maybe an area of about 1 square foot (out of a space of about 800 square feet), we decided there had to be a more efficient way to do this. So, a few of us set off for Home Depot to rent a couple machines that might help us. When we returned we found that one of the machines was useless and one was only semi-useful. We spent the rest of the day either scraping the linoleum glue off the ground or scrubbing the invisible mold spores off the wall studs, careful not to disturb the asbestos and send those spores into the air.

By 3:30, we were exhausted. We packed up the tools and Laura told us we could come back again tomorrow if we wanted to. Either because we felt a sense of responsibility to Laura — and Sheryl — or because we didn’t know what other arduous work we’d have to do on another job site, we decided we would come back again.

Still covered in grime and dust, we set off to visit the Houston JCC just down the road. There we met Joel Dinkin, the executive vice president, who was genuinely happy to see us. Joel and his board chair and another staff member gave us a tour and showed us the destruction Harvey had wrought on the JCC. The entire downstairs — 32,000 square feet — had been destroyed, displacing senior programming, Meals on Wheels, the arts and culture department, dance studio and dozens of offices. The whole preschool had also been destroyed, the center’s beautiful theater had suffered from the flood, and the massive aquatics complex had also been flooded.

Despite that, the JCC was still operating, filled with guests and members. It had been closed for only seven weeks, and during the first few weeks after the hurricane they had used their enormous indoor tennis complex as a supply-distribution center. After that they’d turned it into one giant ECE classroom until they could convert their teen center down the street into a makeshift preschool.

After an hourlong tour, we joined the JCC staff and a dozen kids from their afterschool program in lighting the first candle for Hanukkah. We sang the blessings together and took some pictures. The poignancy of the moment wasn’t lost on any of us: The Houston JCC truly turns darkness into light for the entire community.

The next morning, we arrived back at Sheryl’s house. She was wearing the same clothes from the day before and looked even more tired, if that was possible. She noticed our OFJCC T-shirts and told us that she had really wanted to light the candles last night but couldn’t find any matches.

We were all shocked. Sheryl has a Latino surname, and since the Jewish community makes up less than 2 percent of the area’s population, none of us even imagined she might be Jewish. Sure enough, we saw the sad, empty Hanukkiah in the window sill. There was nothing in the entire house except for this one item.

We insisted that Sheryl let us light the candles with her that night. After another long day of scraping and scrubbing, she returned so we could light the candles together. Because the materials in the house were flammable, we took the Hanukkiah into the backyard and together we lit the candles for the second night of Hanukkah, sang the blessings and shared a little light with each other.

Sheryl said she “wasn’t very Jewish” but something inside her really made her want to light the Hanukkah candles. She had been so upset when she couldn’t find any matches. She thanked us and, through some tears, told us this was the first time in a long time that she’d been happy. We gave Sheryl big hugs, took some pictures and left her our matchbook. We all missed being with our own families back home, but we knew this was exactly where we were supposed to be.

Zack Bodner was part of a group of eight from the Bay Area who helped with Hurricane Harvey relief work from Dec. 11-14 and delivered scarves and hats to homeless shelters. Even though Houston has fallen out of the national news, thousands of homes are still uninhabitable.

Zack Bodner

Zack Bodner is Chief Executive Officer of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.