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Antidote to Rita: Umbrella of Kindness

After Hurricane Rita’s winds killed the electricity at Rabbi Lazer and Rochel Lazaroff’s Houston home on Friday night, the only other drama came when a few paper napkins drifted into the Shabbat candle flames. It could have been worse, much, much worse.

With winds projected to hit at well over 100 miles per hour, the eyes of the nation were upon Hurricane Rita to see–in the aftermath of Katrina–the scale of human tragedy that would follow. Wary of suffering a horrific blow, Houstonites jammed highways looking for a way out, but not Chabad of Houston.

In his weekly email, Chabad of Houston representative Rabbi Yitzchok Schmuckler proclaimed: “Chabad’s Doors Are Opened.” That’s not to say Chabad’s representatives ignored hurricane warnings. They corralled outdoor furniture indoors, kept a battery- operated radio on in a separate room over Shabbat, stocked up on food. Rabbi Schmuckler scoured the city for cases of water and waited in a line that stretched the full length of a store to buy some, with a same sort of wait for D-cell batteries. But Chabad of Houston and Chabad at Texas Medical Center did not join the millions attempting to evacuate because people in Houston needed them.

The Lazaroff’s Chabad center runs Aishel House, a program that provides assistance to patients seeking treatment at the Texas Medical Center. Aishel maintains fully furnished apartments within walking distance of the hospital, provides kosher meals, and other chaplain services to patients and their families. “When someone is battling cancer, a hurricane seems like just another hurdle,” said Rochel Lazaroff. It’s why a family of three in from Brazil stayed in town as the storm approached and why the Lazaroffs had forty people at their Shabbat table while Rita wailed. Also at their Shabbat table were two liver transplant patients who had been airlifted out of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Just before Shabbat, while Rabbi Schmuckler secured the computers and Rabbi Lazaroff helped deliver his wife’s home-baked challah loaves to medical center patients, a rainbow appeared in the sky. Though reluctant to take a break from battening down the hatches, the families went outdoors to say the blessing on the rainbow that recalls G-d’s promise to spare the world from another flood. Even as the sky darkened with ominous storm clouds and wild winds were beginning to blow, Lazaroff regarded the rainbow as “a sign of G-d’s kindness –that His promise would be kept.”

Omen or not, Hurricane Rita did indeed weaken as it struck Houston. Dire predictions of destruction failed to be realized in Houston. Chabad’s senior representative in Texas, Cheina Lazaroff felt that the massive outpouring of giving, selflessness exhibited by Houstonites as they welcomed victims of Hurricane Katrina “with open hearts and without judgment,” strengthened them in the face of Rita. Cheina and her husband, Rabbi Shimon Lazaroff, stayed in town. Their double-bricked Chabad center, raised four feet off the ground, would weather the storm intact. The merit accrued by Houston’s goodness would shield them.
G-d “repays kindness with kindness. I had no fear,” said Lazaroff.

During the hurricane, congregants and community members from ten families joined Rabbi and Mrs. Lazaroff at the Chabad Lubavitch Center of Houston for an impromptu Shabbat retreat during the hurricane. Some slept snug in the Center’s quarters, others escaped the eerily empty streets for the camaraderie of a shared Shabbat meal.

Post-Rita, life in Houston is quickly returning to normal. The Lazaroff’s electricity kicked back in on Sunday, just in time to offer comfort in the blazing hot weather. Chabad of Houston’s school reopened, and Houston-style kindness continued. Preparations are being made for a bar mitzvah of a New Orleans evacuee. Rooms in Aishel House are being freshened up to welcome more patients. “So many people are skeptical that one good act can change the world. It sounds unrealistic,” said Lazaroff. “But when you see so many people doing acts of kindness, you see its effect. Surely by now we are one step closer to Moshiach.”

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