Communication, Professionalism, and Compassion: The URJ's Response to Hurricane Matthew

Inside Leadership

Communication, Professionalism, and Compassion: The URJ's Response to Hurricane Matthew

As a trained professional first responder, I’ve been taught how to deal with potentially impending crises – and I’ve been through many of them.

In talking about Hurricane Matthew, I must first take a moment to remember and pray for those lost and for their families and friends, as well as for all those still suffering from the devastation the storm left in its wake. The situation in Haiti continues to be a disaster of epic proportions; the loss of life and property there and along the entire Eastern Seaboard is significant and tragic.

As Hurricane Matthew grew in intensity, our coastal governors started communicating loud and clear that this was likely to become a disastrous event. Preparation, communications, and crisis management around the storm were both well-coordinated and professionally delivered.

In the face of the storm, the staff of the Union for Reform Judaism worked closely with our member congregations along the coast. URJ Chief Program Officer Mark Pelavin and Amy Asin, vice president of strengthening congregations, led an effort that included constant communications and ongoing outreach. The URJ’s South District Leadership kept in contact with our community leaders, clergy, lay leadership, and professional staff through both emails and phone calls.

Many of the stories we heard resulted in our coordinating others to help, and the URJ served as the active facilitator in making these connections. For example, congregations from non-affected areas provided High Holiday accommodations to members of congregations that were forced to close as a result the hurricane. 

Though some of our congregations did suffer physical property damage, all are, fortunately, now reopened. Still, post-hurricane flooding affected North Carolina far more than expected, and even now, outreach continues to those who will have a long road back to well-being.  My own congregation in fact has property damage exceeding 50K.

As a socially responsible organization, we’ve learned much over the years in how to deal with natural disaster and crisis, and we continue to refine our leadership in times of disaster. Key to these efforts is our partnership with Jewish relief agencies that are both staffed and equipped to be the front line of relief efforts. For domestic relief, we work with the Jewish Federations of North America and NECHAMA. In the case of the most recent disaster in Haiti, the URJ has partnered with American Jewish World Service to raise funds for on-the-ground relief efforts.

For me, Hurricane Matthew meant dealing with the crisis on a personal level in my own community as well as at the URJ level. It was my URJ family that helped me – and others, I’m certain – to persevere during this difficult time.

Today, across the URJ’s nearly 900 congregations, we have the capability to be a meaningful force for good during times of disaster. Throughout the storm and its aftermath, the #HurricaneMatthew topic tag in The Tent, the collaborative workspace for Reform leadership, efficiently connected congregations able to eagerly and warmly open their doors to people who were evacuated or displaced by the storm during the High Holidays. Just as we’ve done in the past and during the Hurricane Matthew crisis, I am confident that, in the future, we will continue to come together to help others in their time of need.

Richard Holtz is the URJ South District Chair and a member of the URJ North American Board and its oversite committee. He is a past president of Temple Beth-El of Ormond Beach, FL, and an active board member. He has been happily married for 43 years and is the proud father of a son who is an HUC-trained rabbi and a daughter who is an attorney. Formerly a fire department line officer and a nationally certified paramedic, he now works in technology and is a USCG-licensed boat captain.

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