“And after the last week, of all the bad things, it’s very joyful to have something happy,” said one of the attendees of the bar mitzvah.
It wasn’t a typical bar mitzvah, but then nothing has been typical in the Houston area since Hurricane Harvey came ashore as a powerful storm and left whole sections of the city underwater, including its predominantly Jewish neighborhood.
Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss opened Saturday’s ceremony ushering 13-year-old Doran Evan Yustein into manhood by pointing out the importance of coming together as a congregation and broader community during such times of hardship.
“We have an obligation to celebrate, nonetheless, because we are alive and have what is most important: ourselves, our families and this great opportunity to be together,” he said.
Hausman-Weiss is the rabbi for Shma Koleinu, a roving Jewish congregation without a permanent house of worship, and he’s been tending to his flock despite being forced from his home by the flooding. On the Friday the storm hit, he held a service on Facebook for congregants who were busy getting their own homes ready or who were riding out the storm outside the city.
A Time for Community
With his home so damaged, Hausman-Weiss couldn’t hold services there this past Friday night. And so on Saturday, the first Shabbat, or Sabbath, since the previous weekend’s catastrophic flooding, Doran and his family opened his bar mitzvah service — typically an invite-only affair — to anyone from the larger Jewish community who wanted to come. It was held at congregation Brith Shalom’s synagogue in Bellaire, a Houston enclave.
“We wanted people to come and celebrate the bar mitzvah, but also offer prayers for the community, because there’s been so much sadness, and so many lives have been affected,” said Doran’s mother, Gabrielle Moses. The day before, the family helped Doran’s Hebrew teacher, Debbie Uzick, clean her house. She lost everything in the flood.
Flooding has had an outsized presence on this fledgling congregation. Its founder, David Rosenfeld, died suddenly the day before a Memorial Day flood in 2015. Hausman-Weiss and his wife, Natalie, waded through floodwaters to help bury him, she said. This time, the Hausman-Weisses were rescued by a congregant; nearly 60 people from the Jewish community showed up to help them in the days that followed.
“This is the time you need your community,” Natalie Hausman-Weiss said. “This is the time when you need people to show they care and lift you up.” Holding an open service “was a good opportunity for that,” she said.
On Saturday evening, the synagogue was about half-full. Some were friends and family of Doran’s. Others, including Bernadine Frank, came because they needed to feel connected after such a trying week.
“We’re all in need of some prayer right now,” said Frank, who saw the open invitation on social media.
Laurie Gass, a congregation member and religious school teacher, said it was important for her to attend services after going through such an ordeal.
“It’s about healing and to celebrate a happy occasion,” she said. “And after the last week, of all the bad things, it’s very joyful to have something happy.”