We Built Temporary Homes for Hurricane Survivors. It Was Very Jewish.

A Wider Bridge Leadership Mission alumna Hannah Simpson joined the Red Cross as a volunteer to help accommodate coastal evacuees in Austin, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey.

“Welcome home,” the rabbi gleefully offered as I arrived early to help set up for Rosh Hashanah services at Manhattan’s Jacob Javits Convention Center. A mental image of the number 400 immediately flooded my mind and my eyes watered.

That’s how many cots, allotted 5’x8’ each, give or take 50, I’d guess the event hall could hold if converted into a hurricane shelter like those I had just helped to set up and staff in Austin and Houston. The entire Javits Center would easily hold thousands, and I guarantee someone on New York’s emergency management team has that number calculated precisely.

The rabbi was noting my return to New York after three and a half weeks volunteering with the American Red Cross through and following Hurricane Harvey. I soon learned the whole temple had followed my social media updates throughout that experience. “Welcome home” meant to welcome me back to my residence and congregation, but it jarred me nonetheless. I could come home, but tens of thousands of people in Texas (and by then, Florida) were literally calling convention centers like this one, school gyms, or industrial warehouses their new “home.”

I traveled to Austin on an invitation to deliver a guest sermon for the annual Interfaith Pride Service—to talk about life from the perspective of a Jewish transgender woman. I had plans to stay through the parade weekend, but that was cancelled along with my outbound flight as the storm loomed. A local news network reported the Red Cross was recruiting to scale up in Austin for coastal evacuees. How better to spend my pride than by volunteering in a state that had just narrowly failed to pass laws dictating which restrooms I must legally pee in? Continue reading in Alma