HOUSTON – (By Michelle Leigh Smith for Realty News Report) – As the anniversary of the fierce hurricane that forced demolition of one of southwest Houston’s oldest synagogues approaches, the 300 congregants crowd into a social hall at 9001 Greenwillow for services, uncertain of the future. Many, like Max Reichenthal, President of Texas Iron and Metal, have been attending services at United Orthodox Synagogues for more than 60 years. UOS is the largest orthodox shul in the Southwest.
“It’s been a lot of work – it was so weird to see the synagogue you grew up in being torn down,” Reichenthal says. “I think we’ll continue to see the effects it has on the people in the community for a long time to come.”
The sanctuary at United Orthodox Synagogues was built in 1961, south of Brays Bayou in an area that was hit hard by Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall on Aug. 25, 2017. UOS is a merger of three Orthodox synagogues now guided by Rabbi Barry Gelman. The beautiful sanctuary with its unforgettable stained glass windows took on more than six feet of water last August. It was demolished in April.
With their locations near Brays Bayou, a number of other Jewish institutions in the Meyerland neighborhood suffered extensive flooding, including the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center and the Seven Acres Jewish Senior Care.
Like many other Jewish institutions, the high waters of Hurricane Harvey have left the leadership of United Orthodox Synagogues faced with serious choices – to rebuild eight to ten feet higher or to relocate. The congregation owns four acres at that site, including the land under adjacent houses that will be torn down soon due to flooding. They are considering rebuilding at a higher elevation or moving south of Loop 610 on five lots north of Willow Meadows Baptist Church at 4300 West Bellfort.
“We are trying to figure out what option is most viable so we don’t know yet,” says Amy Goldstein, a board member at UOS. “The major determinant factor is that we have to stay within walking distance for our congregants. Once the viability of each option is determined, then the entire congregation has to vote on either the real estate purchase or rebuilding at a higher elevation. That will take placed in the fall after the High Holidays.”
UOS no longer has a school, not since the Tax Day flood in April of 2015. “Meeting in the reception hall is a temporary solution, but we are trying to make the best of it,” Goldstein says. “It is very crowded on High Holy days.”
“We knew Harvey was coming versus what we faced after the Memorial Day and Tax Day floods, so we were able to move the Torahs in advance to the second floor of someone’s home,” she says. “The leaders have worked hard to preserve some of the stained glass and religious artifacts and whatever we thought was necessary to save,” says Reichenthal.
UOS, Congregation Beth Israel at 5600 N. Braeswood and Congregation Beth Yeshurun, at 4525 Beechnut, also faced repairs and rebuilding after Hurricane Harvey.
“All 4.7 million people in Harris County were impacted directly or indirectly during the flood and after the flood waters receded,” according to the 32-page memorandum by two Harris County Flood Control District officials, Steve Fitzgerald, chief engineer, and meteorologist Jeff Lindner, director of hydrologic operations. The report says Harvey was the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history, at $125 billion second only to Katrina, which totaled $160 billion in damages.