Con­gre­ga­tion gives back through so­cial ac­tion plan

Mem­bers at Beth Yeshu­ran ea­ger to help af­ter out­pour­ing of sup­port in wake of Har­vey

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - BELIEF - COR­RE­SPON­DENT By Aaron West

Alittle more than a year ago, Rabbi Brian Strauss’ home in south­west Hous­ton was flooded by more than 2 feet of wa­ter. Con­gre­ga­tion Beth Yeshu­run, the syn­a­gogue where he’s the se­nior rabbi, was flooded by 6 feet of wa­ter.

His life, and his life’s work, was be­ing washed away by Hur­ri­cane Har­vey, he said.

“It was a tough year,” Strauss said. “At first, we didn’t have any­where to go.”

Still, he said he didn’t blame God.

“I don’t be­lieve God was pun­ish­ing us with Har­vey,” he said. “Some­times, ter­ri­ble events hap­pen, but God is in the love and trust of a com­mu­nity and the peo­ple that help each other re­build. Through tragedy, there can be good.”

Strauss, with the help of syn­a­gogues, churches and the sur­round­ing com­mu­nity, be­gan to pick up the pieces. The con­gre­ga­tion had sus­tained $1.8 mil­lion in dam­age, and all the seat­ing in the sanc­tu­ary had to be re­placed. But through­out the re­build­ing process, Strauss said he was con­tin­u­ously im­pressed by how many peo­ple were help­ing.

“Other churches opened their doors for us,” he said. “The com­mu­nity do­nated time and money. I wasn’t shocked be­cause I had al­ways known the com­mu­nity was great, but it was just very in­spir­ing.”

One year later, Strauss took that in­spi­ra­tion and cre­ated Beth Yeshu­ran’s new so­cial ac­tion plan. The pro­gram, which he pre­sented re­cently dur­ing

the syn­a­gogue’s Yom Kip­pur ser­vices, aims to con­nect the mem­bers of the largest con­ser­va­tive Jewish con­gre­ga­tion in the coun­try to Hous­ton-area ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tions that need their help.

It’s Strauss’ way of say­ing “thank you” to the city that helped him and his con­gre­ga­tion re­build, he said.

“I knew I wanted to do some­thing to give back,” he said. “Now that we’re back on our feet, we met and we de­cided how we would do it.”

Set­ting up the so­cial ac­tion plan, which Strauss called the most am­bi­tious pro­gram the syn­a­gogue has ever taken on, in­volved vis­it­ing with dif­fer­ent or­ga­ni­za­tion and ser­vice op­por­tu­ni­ties in Hous­ton. Strauss was on the look­out for groups and on­go­ing projects that would be a good fit for the con­gre­ga­tion.

“We were look­ing for op­por­tu­ni­ties that would make peo­ple want to sign up,” he said. “We needed work that would ex­cite peo­ple.”

Ul­ti­mately, Beth Yeshu­ran lead­ers set­tled on seven or­ga­ni­za­tions and projects that cover a va­ri­ety of needs through­out the city. For in­stance, there’s serv­ing meals to the home­less once a month with Di­rect Hope; spon­sor­ing a refugee fam­ily — pick them up from the air­port, ex­plore Hous­ton with them and help them set up their apart­ment — through In­ter­faith Min­istries; and get­ting trained in sui­cide pre­ven­tion tech­niques through Men­tal Health Amer­ica of Greater Hous­ton.

All the op­por­tu­ni­ties are laid out in a large so­cial ac­tion plan card that was passed out dur­ing the con­gre­ga­tion’s Yom Kip­pur ser­vices. Any­one who wants to par­tic­i­pate can choose the pro­gram they want to sign up for by tear­ing a col­ored to­ken out of the card and turn­ing it in to the syn­a­gogue.

Af­ter the ser­vice, Strauss said more than 300 peo­ple had signed up.

“I knew that peo­ple wanted to work in the com­mu­nity, and I knew that there were op­por­tu­ni­ties,” he said. “Some­times peo­ple just need re­minders. The best way to cre­ate real change is to em­power oth­ers.”

This is also the view of DeLaina Mulc­ahy, the Hous­ton at­tor­ney who in 2015 started Di­rect HOPE, the or­ga­ni­za­tion that serves be­tween 150 and 200 hot meals each week to peo­ple with­out homes in down­town Hous­ton.

Mulc­ahy said the Beth Yeshu­ran ef­fort rep­re­sents the first time an en­tire church has part­nered with the pro­gram she started.

“We haven’t had any­one sign up to work with us and have a long-term com­mit­ment,” she said, adding that most peo­ple and groups who come out to serve meals do it spo­rad­i­cally. “The more peo­ple we have out here the bet­ter, and serv­ing meals re­ally al­lows peo­ple see the ben­e­fits of what they’re do­ing.”

Of course, the pro­gram ben­e­fits the peo­ple vol­un­teers are serv­ing even more, and not just be­cause of the food. A lot of the peo­ple who line up for Di­rect HOPE’s meals have sim­ply fallen on hard times, and pro­vid­ing a ser­vice they can rely on can help peo­ple get back on their feet for good.

It’s some­thing that Mulc­ahy said she hopes con­gre­ga­tion mem­bers from Beth Yeshu­ran will ex­pe­ri­ence.

“There’s such a mis­con­cep­tion about home­less­ness, she said. “When you talk to peo­ple and hear their sto­ries — there are highly ed­u­cated peo­ple out there that bad stuff has just hap­pened to. Some of them don’t have any­one to rely on, and once we help get them back in the groove and they come back as vol­un­teers, that’s what makes the big­gest dif­fer­ence. When they join us on the other side of the table to give back.”

Melissa Phillip / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Rabbi Brian Strauss and the lead­ers of the con­gre­ga­tion at Beth Yeshu­run cre­ated a so­cial ac­tion plan to help those in need in the Hous­ton area.

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