Nashville, Tenn.’s small Jewish community has pooled its resources in the wake of the city’s worst floods in more than 70 years, providing shelter, food, assistance and counseling to some of the thousands of local residents forced from their homes.

At the Gordon Jewish Community Center in Bellevue, one of three Red Cross shelters in the city, a few hundred evacuees gathered in the immediate aftermath of two days of torrential rains, some having made it out of their homes by boat. There, they found a flood recovery warehouse offering basic items for free, as well as food delivered by Chabad-Lubavitch of Nashville and other local organizations.

Rabbi Yitzchok and Esther Tiechtel, directors of the Chabad House, made the rounds of the tables Sunday night and Monday handing out sympathy cards made by their children. What they heard in their conversations with the evacuees underscored the plight faced by many in this southern city: Water from the swollen Cumberland River, its tributaries and area creeks has claimed at least 18 lives, left family members stranded, and ruined homes and businesses.

“We’re not even near the ocean or in an identified flood plain, so no one has flood insurance here,” said Yitzchok Tiechtel, whose Bellevue home sits less than a mile from where floodwaters spilled over a retaining wall, but was spared any damage. “There are so many people who left with just the clothes on their backs. Now they have nothing left.”

One man at the JCC, who identified himself by the name Larry, said that he was able to make it to the shelter because he was at a scout camp when the rains started.

“What a different feeling it is to be on the other end,” he told Tiechtel.

“My wife is still at the house without power,” added Larry. “It might take another two days to get her out. You have no idea how much this means to me to know that you are talking with us, caring about us.”

Relying on donations from Jewish families, the JCC’s recovery warehouse plans to stay open until the end of the week, organizer Harry Baker told the local CBS television news affiliate WTVF. People have donated shoes, clothes, towels, toothpaste and other toiletries. AT&T also dropped off a cache of cell-phones at the center that flood victims can use free of charge.

“We have just collected so much that we actually have to stop taking these kinds of donations,” said Baker.

Rabbi Yitzchok Tiechtel counsels a flood victim.
Rabbi Yitzchok Tiechtel counsels a flood victim.

Tiechtel said that the rains – as much as 17 inches in some locations – forced the cancellation of a Jewish unity barbeque celebrating the springtime holiday of Lag B’Omer. More than four feet of water covered the event’s location, and while he pledged during the storms that his synagogue nearby would stay open, barely enough people showed up there for prayer services one night.

In its latest flood warning, the National Weather Service predicted that area rivers could remain above flood stage for several more days. Tennessee’s governor declared a state of emergency, and appealed to President Barack Obama to do the same, thereby freeing up disaster funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Tiechtel noted that despite their own hardships, Jewish families pulled together, inspiring others in the city with its unity and love and humanity. He pointed to an action plan spearheaded by Jewish Family Services and the Jewish Federation of Nashville that has coordinated the efforts of local Jewish organizations and synagogues.

“Truly one can invoke the biblical blessing, ‘Who is like Your people Israel,’ ” said the rabbi. “Lag B’Omer was a day meant to unify us as a community. Though the weather turned and pounded us, we still unified in a way which we could never have imagined.

“Now, as the waters recede,” he added, “we are focusing on getting are fellow citizens back on their feet.”