By Liz Fisher
A few weeks ago, I attended a devastating funeral for a friend, a member of my community, who died way too young (maybe it’s always too young?) after an eight-year–long battle with breast cancer. The funeral was heart-wrenching, and I’d give anything to get this woman back; to continue a friendship that had really just begun; to return her to her husband, children, parents and friends.
But the theme of the funeral was really the power of community. Person after person told stories of when our friend took them in—when they were recent immigrants, when they needed a meal, when they needed a person to listen. She was warm and witty and there for people. The feeling of community in all its messiness and wonderfulness was evident throughout: An Orthodox rabbi led the service, while our Reform rabbi sat in the pews. People spoke in English and in Russian. People called her husband by his full name, his American English nickname and his Russian nickname.
I left the funeral and went directly to the airport to visit with the Jewish community in Houston. Much has been written about the impact of the storms in Houston—especially in one neighborhood where many Jewish families live, a neighborhood so often flooded that FEMA is considering buying up the housing and making the area a flood pond.
The streets are still full of rubble. The kids are in preschool on a repurposed indoor tennis court. The seniors are spread across town as their program space remains inaccessible.
The people in Houston are tired, worn out, traumatized. And resilient. Focused on rebuilding. Unusual partnerships have arisen. Schools are squished into other school spaces. Every place where it is possible to open for programming is open—at no cost regardless of loss of revenue. The largest synagogue moved into a mega church for the high holidays—rent free. Volunteers from around the country and world are sleeping on mattresses in churches and on people’s floors and mucking and gutting houses all day long.
“In the days after the storm,” a colleague told me, “everyone was either a floodee or a volunteer.”
I came back to NYC for Yom Kippur and then got back on the road. To Miami.
In the Miami Jewish community, people greet each other with, “How’d you make out in the storm?” in much the same way they might ask about the horrific Miami traffic. They are focused on rebuilding in communities near and far that experienced far greater loss than they did.
In a meeting while in Miami, I heard about children and families who are homeless and those who aren’t technically homeless but are couch-surfing, or living with several other families in tiny apartments. I heard from a woman who is quietly helping these families—one cash payment or hotel room at a time. Several times, she noted that she isn’t a professional, or an educator, but that she is there to provide a Band-Aid when needed to get these families through the day. In a room with nonprofit colleagues, where people could have been looking to her for funds for their own very worthy causes, the conversation was wholly focused on brainstorming ways to get her more financial resources, more volunteers, more help for the work she is doing.
On Oct. 4, we began the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, for which many of us build or visit temporary huts, created to dine and dwell in. I love Sukkot. I believe that it would be more popular were it not for its unfortunate timing on the back of the exhaustion that is Yom Kippur. Most years, Sukkot is for me a lesson in fragility and temporariness. Life right now feels as fragile and temporary as ever.
This year, though, I’m thinking not about impermanence, but about building. Each year, we build these temporary huts. They are similar to the year before, but not exactly the same. They are created for a period of time. They don’t fully protect us from the elements, but they create a space in which to experience the world around us. We decorate them and try to make them beautiful. We invite in guests and symbolically invite in the memories of others who inspired us.
On Sukkot, we learn what I learned at the funeral, in Miami and in Houston: We have the ability to create shelter in times of need—however imperfect, however temporary, however fragile. We are in the elements, but we have the ability to try, within that context, to create something to protect us. That “something” might be community; it might be family of birth or family of choice; it might be the actions of giving or volunteering. It never fully protects us. It sometimes doesn’t even partially protect us. When we can’t build our own shelter, people do it for us. That’s what shiva in the Jewish tradition is: people feeding us, caring for us, building a hut around us while we sit in our devastation unable to build anything for ourselves.
Sukkot is about creating the shelter we need. It’s about rebuilding. It’s what makes the impossible time possible. It’s a small piece of technology in a very fragile existence.
Liz Fisher loves living in Brooklyn, and frequently publishes her thoughts on finding meaning in Judaism and seeing the glass half full