A Baltimore native spearheads a campaign to rescue and replace mezuzahs destroyed by Hurricane Harvey.
Chava Gal-Or has always felt a special connection to the mezuzah, the encased parchment inscribed with Torah verses that’s affixed to doorposts of Jewish homes.
“Since I was younger, I’ve loved kissing mezuzahs,” she says, alluding to the custom of kissing one’s fingers after touching a mezuzah. “When my kids were little, it was our nighttime ritual and family tradition to go around the house kissing each mezuzah before reciting the Shema prayer.”
But when Hurricane Harvey ripped through Texas last August, Gal-Or, a Baltimore native who lives in Houston, admits she surprised herself by not trying to rescue her mezuzahs.
“I was trying to save my most prized possessions and some of my mezuzahs are really special to me, so I was surprised I did nothing for them,” she says.
Now, as recovery efforts continue in Houston, Gal-Or is striving to ensure that every Jewish person whose home was impacted by Harvey has a new kosher mezuzah once they rebuild.
The project is called Door l’Door: Mezuzah Rescue and Replacement. “The name is a play on words, and I love it,” says Gal-Or. “Dor l’dor means generation to generation. Generations before me have been putting up mezuzahs, and generations after me will be doing the same. I’m hoping to put new mezuzahs on the doorposts of as many Jews as possible.
“I am a Jewish communal worker and I have no extra money,” she says. “I feel like I can’t help everyone but I hope with this project I can make someone feel a little more confident and give them something to help when disaster happens.”
Gal-Or, then known as Toni Bloomberg, graduated from Randallstown High School in 1984 and earned a degree in Jewish studies from Baltimore Hebrew University. She is currently the director of congregational learning at Houston’s Temple Sinai.
“Thirty families from my congregation lost their homes in Hurricane Harvey, and all together 1,000 Jewish homes were destroyed in Houston,” says Gal-Or, 51, a mother of two adult sons. “While we didn’t have damage to our home, there was a point when the water in our garage was calf-deep. We stayed in our house for the first four days of the storm and decided it was time to leave. We ended up at our synagogue.”
In the following days, Gal-Or — who in the hurricane’s aftermath also also washed dishes, pots, pans and did some overall cleanup for her friends — was overwhelmed by the stories of destruction, loss and survival.
“We all felt we couldn’t do enough to help,” she says. “I went on Facebook and asked if anyone knew where I could get kosher mezuzahs because I wanted to get those for my two friends who needed them. I was going to start there and see if I could get more as the weeks went on.”
But with that post, the project took off as friends, family and members of the Houston community re-posted Gal-Or’s request on their Facebook pages. Even the project’s name came from a Facebook friend’s suggestion.
“Social media for me is how this all came to be,” says Gal-Or. “Every time there is a tragedy my heart breaks, and now I feel I have found something I can do for those struggling after disaster. My hope is those who receive new mezuzahs feel really good inside and I can take away a little bit of pain for a moment.”
Gal-Or is now collecting mezuzah scrolls written by a scribe on kosher animal skin. She already has received boxes of scrolls and cases from people throughout the country. (The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago Federation recently announced it is donating 100 scrolls to Gal-Or’s outfit.)
There are currently 30 people on her list to receive a mezuzah, and that number is growing. Marjorie Goodman is on that list. A single mother with a 15-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son, Goodman lost everything in the hurricane and lives in a hotel.
“When Chava told me she was going to get me a mezuzah, I told her it was the most meaningful thing anyone could get me,” she says. “I would have gotten one eventually, but it wouldn’t have been on my list of necessities because I need to replace everything from furniture to cleaning supplies. But a mezuzah is something special for me.
“Chava said she and her son will come put a mezuzah up for me in my new home, and that will make me cry,” she says. “I haven’t cried over anything I’ve lost, but it’s the kindness that has gotten to me. I’m looking forward to getting out of a hotel and marking my new home with a new mezuzah.”
Gal-Or is receiving help from Houston’s synagogues and Jewish Family Service. JFS is providing Door l’Door — which is in the process of obtaining nonprofit status — with names of Jewish families impacted by Harvey.
“We have heard from many that they search through rubble looking for their mezuzah. This project can bring great comfort to families in an instant,” says Linda Burger, CEO of Houston’s JFS. “The donor may never know whose door the casing and the kosher parchment adorns, but they will always be a part of the spiritual recovery of our community.”
Gal-Or hopes to collect enough mezuzahs for all Jewish families affected by Harvey, as well as others.
“I would love to send a mezuzah to any Jew in the United States or internationally who has undergone a tragedy to their home. That is my dream,” says Gal-Or. “I’m doing something tangible in a world that doesn’t always feel tangible. We’ve had a lot of tragedy in the world, back to back, and I see this as Jews taking care of Jews. I now feel like I have a purpose.”
Top photo: A Baltimore native who now lives in Houston, Chava Gal-Or hopes to collect enough mezuzahs for all of the 1,000 Jewish households impacted by Hurricane Harvey. (Handout)
Aliza Friedlander is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
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