SEPTEMBER 14, 2017 – It was Labor Day weekend and Hurricane Harvey was pounding Houston and southern Texas and Nate Dalton decided to pick up the phone and call Rabbi Yossi Lipsker in Swampscott.
“What are we going to do about Houston?” Dalton asked.
Lipsker knew exactly what his friend was asking about. Dalton, a philanthropist and former Marblehead resident, had teamed up with Lipsker three times last year to provide hurricane relief for residents of hard hit communities in Savannah, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. The two created 1 Mitzvah, a nonprofit dedicated to spreading the awareness of the power of performing one good deed.
“We are just happy to be able to add our little bit to all the Americans pitching in to help our neighbors. Our organization was founded on the simple idea that one good deed or mitzvah leads to another,” said Dalton.
Last year, Lipsker had brought Jewish teens and adults from the North Shore to help with the cleanups, but school was about to begin. Lipsker decided to call for backups from the expansive Chabad network of rabbis. “I realized I was going to go, and I said to myself if I can reach this conclusion, let me find 49 other rabbis around the country that will do this. He convinced his brothers-in-law in Virginia, Yossel Kranz and Sholom Deitsch to go, and then they created a What’s App group. Phone calls started to come in from all over the country, and within a day, 50 rabbis were set to convene in Houston, where they would spend 48 hours assisting Red Cross and emergency workers, and Chabad in Houston.
Meanwhile, right before Labor Day, Lipsker coordinated a convoy of relief trucks stuffed with food supplies that headed to Houston from Connecticut, Michigan, Tennessee and Georgia. By the time the 50 rabbis arrived last Tuesday, the supplies in the trucks were waiting to be emptied and distributed by the rabbis.
In Houston, the rabbis were dispatched to homes around the entire city to meet with Jews and non-Jews who were impacted by the hurricane. The rabbis entered waterlogged homes, and helped people carry their personal items out to the street. While some rabbis helped tear down walls to rid the homes of mold, others were sent to shelters were they spent hours talking with people who needed a shoulder to cry on. “There was an enormous shortage of qualified pastoral personnel and we filled a huge void,” Lipsker explained.
Meanwhile, locals were overjoyed to meet the rabbis. “I had my yarmulke and tzitzis on and people would say, ‘Are you Jewish?’ They were very curious about it. They said ‘this is so powerful, thank you for coming and doing this, and G-d bless you.’ ”
Said Rabbi Chaim Marcus of Los Angeles, “Our team spent a few hours in this neighborhood doing what I’d call shlepping and listening. Helping people with the physical and the spiritual. If we had a camera with every team, there would be dozens of pictures of rabbis in driveways and homes lending an ear and giving a hug; pictures of shlepping heavy furniture, helping rip out drywall, sorting through documents and preserving what could be salvaged.”
On one of his trips to help clean out homes, Lipsker encountered a man who explained that the house that he had built with his wife was in ruins. “He told me he had never fully recovered from losing his wife, and that she was everything to him, and the house reminded him of her, and he felt like he was losing her again,” said Lipsker. “I was sitting on the ground and he came close to me and burst out crying. A river of tears opened up. He grabbed onto me and wouldn’t let me go and held me. And then he said, ‘thank you for being here, and for comforting me.’ ”
Lipsker and the rabbis also hopped aboard Red Cross trucks and handed out thousands of meals to locals. “I found myself thinking about the paradox of an Orthodox rabbi feeding ham and turkey to non-Jews, but it felt right,” he said.
Lipsker is back on the North Shore, preparing for his high holidays sermons, and also thinking about his next emergency aid trip to Texas. This Feb., Lipsker and Rabbi Shmaya Freedman plan to bring 50 North Shore teens back to Houston. “It’s already half-filled,” he said.