If there’s one thing the world has been reminded of in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, it’s that when it comes to human lives and suffering, people respond.

When women in the Chabad community in Houston, Texas, saw what was going on around them, they took immediate action. Working existing networks and building on each other’s strengths, the women of the community reached out to each other and coalesced into a grass-roots humanitarian organization—one that has yet to slow down.

Eta Cotler, who lives near the main Chabad center on Fondren Road, where many of the relief efforts were centered, says “as soon as we could leave our houses, we did one of the things Jewish mothers do best: feed people.”

In the first few days, hundreds of meals were arranged through word of mouth and quick response on a Chabad women’s WhatsApp group.

“A family needs eight meals,” was posted on the group, and within minutes came an offer of salmon, another had salad, someone else gave cookies, and someone volunteered to collect the items and deliver them.

“Everybody contributed what they had,” relates Cotlar. “Once I could drive on the roads, I went to a dollar store to collect supplies. There were rows of penne pasta, so that’s what we worked with. It was chaos, but I think being women gave us the skills to handle it. How many times do we find out on a Friday that we have six more guests for Shabbat dinner? When that happens, we don’t collapse. We pull out another chicken.

“We needed that same attitude working in the soup kitchen that we set up at Chabad,” she continues. “In the days right after the storm, with limited supplies, help and time, we needed to prepare 300 meals by noon, and then a group of stragglers would wander in needing to eat. We couldn’t collapse. We just got more food.”

‘Caring for Those in Need’

Much of the cooking was organized by Perel Leah Fishman, who is not a professional caterer but has extensive experiences cooking for large groups, including 300 guests at her own son’s bar mitzvah.

Her team recalls that even when she was told at last minute, “I don’t need 250 meals; I actually need 325,” she calmly and efficiently led the women to keep calm and carry on, often staying from early morning until late into the evening.

“Before the hurricane hit, I was in denial,” says neighborhood resident Rivkie Gottlieb. “Two years ago, everyone prepared for a big storm, and it didn’t even rain. But this time, it rained and wouldn’t stop. As the water rose, the terror rose, and we were stuck in our homes because the streets had turned to rivers. Nobody knew what to do. But once we were mobilized, we began the endless task of caring for those in need.”

Gottlieb describes delivering food to stranded families. “You can’t say ‘sorry.’ You can’t save people from the tragedy. But sometimes, you can give a hug. We are supporting each other with meals and with smiles. We’re shlepping sheetrock and developing friendships.”

“I’m a teacher, not a caterer,” agrees Rivka Fishman, who worked non-stop preparing meals and aiding with childcare over the past week. “But working with the other Chabad women in that makeshift soup kitchen, preparing between 300 and 600 meals a day, I saw the power of what people call ‘the Rebbe’s army.’ ”

To assist in the effort, donate to the hurricane Harvey relief fund here.