Skokie Review: Skokie Yeshiva students lend hand to Harvey victims in Houston

Seniors from Skokie’s Fasman Yeshiva High School visited Houston Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017 to Friday, Sept. 8, 2017 to help with cleanup efforts from hurricane Harvey. Others in the area joined with them to help with cleanup efforts. (Fasman Yeshiva High School/Chicago)

Under normal circumstances, high school seniors at Fasman Yeshiva High School in Skokie would have be found in classrooms last week getting into the groove of a new academic year.

Instead, nearly two dozen seniors and others associated with the Skokie school stepped away from the classroom for a couple of “unforgettable days,” as one student called them, to join the relief efforts in Houston.

The group left Wednesday, Sept. 6 and returned two days later, flying out of O’Hare Airport. They said they were glad they went even if they were a little bleary-eyed from all their work.

Rabbi Shmuel Schuman, CEO of Hebrew Theological College of which the high school is one division, said the school includes eight students from Houston as well as alumni from there.

“With those connections and the magnitude of the destruction, there was a sense of not wanting to be observers,” he said. “We wanted to be players.”

By the time Hurricane Harvey struck southeast Texas, including Houston, Aug. 25, it had been officially downgraded to a tropical storm. Still, it left in its wake record rainfalls that led to massive flooding, causing people to flee from there homes. Some who didn’t leave, initially, later had to be rescued.

Even if the Skokie visitors knew about storm Harvey’s devastation beforehand, being in Houston provided a whole new level of understanding, they said.

“When I saw what happened — when I actually saw the destruction with my own eyes — I was actually shocked,” said Jonathan Kosowsky, a senior from Dallas. “My immediate reaction was ‘what can I do to help these people and get their lives on track?'”

The students at Skokie Yeshiva, the name Fasman Yeshiva High School is commonly called, said the sight of damaged houses with destroyed belongings out front — house after house, street after street — will never be forgotten.

In one house Koswosky worked at, he said a woman lost many of her belongings including an irreplaceable set of pictures.

“It was a whole collection of photo albums just destroyed,” he said. “I don’t have it in my heart to say how sad that was because they were photos with her grandmother when she was a child and with her siblings.”

Eli Adelerstein, 17, another Skokie Yeshiva senior from Dallas, said the owner of one house he worked at was still in denial.

“We came in with our demolition tools because the house was filled with mold, but he was still trying to salvage the house,” Adelerstein said.

The Skokie crew wasn’t sure whether to break it to him that things couldn’t be saved or just try to make him feel better, he said.

“People were emotionally stressed out as you could imagine,” Adelerstein said. “Some of what we had to do is not just help people with physical labor but emotionally — just being there for them.”

Senior Yedidyah Rosenwasser, 16, said some of the sights were surreal.

“Basically every single house had six inches of water,” he said. “Basically, every house had to have some grout taken out. Everybody’s carpet was taken out. A lot of the wooden panels were removed from people’s houses.”

Tzadok Cohen, 17, recounted how one woman lost a furniture set she said cost $10,000. As the crew took pictures for insurance, she kept repeating her house was really nice “but we lost everything.”

Volunteers came together from all over to lend a hand regardless of race or religious background, according to the group.

Rabbi Joshua Zisook, Chicago Theological College director of admissions, said 10 of them were removing about 300 Jewish holy books that were moldy and filled with flood water.

“We had to bring them to the sacred burial site, which was located at the parking lot of a synagogue about five blocks away,” he said. “We had about 25 bags and they were so heavy, we didn’t know how to carry them.”

A random stranger stopped his truck and helped transport the books, Zisook said.

Even in the middle of such strenuous physical labor, Skokie Yeshiva faculty took time to hold classes for the students there, they said.

When the group, which included 22 seniors, college chaperones and staff, arrived back at O’Hare Friday , they held their daily morning prayers — “davening” — in a corner of the airport while waiting for buses to arrive. They were then to head, not to home for rest, but to school for classes.

“We have to be appreciative of all the things we have because we were witness to people who have lost a lot of things,” Schuman told the teenagers before morning prayer at the airport. “They don’t have a lot of things that we take for granted like electricity and even a home. That’s got to be our takeaway.”

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