Congregation gives back through social action plan
Members at Beth Yeshuran eager to help after outpouring of support in wake of Harvey
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.”
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.