Flint’s Jewish community celebrates outpouring of support in water crisis

On top of town’s already unstable economic situation, widespread lead poisoning is ’emotionally, a hit for the residents of Flint’

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Grayling Stefek, 5, has his blood drawn during a free lead testing event and family fun night for children on Tuesday, January 26, 2016, at Eisenhower Elementary school in Flint, Michigan. (Conor Ralph/The Flint via AP)
Grayling Stefek, 5, has his blood drawn during a free lead testing event and family fun night for children on Tuesday, January 26, 2016, at Eisenhower Elementary school in Flint, Michigan. (Conor Ralph/The Flint via AP)

Read by Jews the world over, last week’s Bible portion tells of God miraculously parting the Red Sea. But in the face of a rampant water crisis, getting clean water to Flint, Michigan, may require almost everything short of divine intervention.

In a series of oversights, misreporting and some charge, negligence, much of Flint’s water became contaminated by lead in April 2012 when — as part of a money-saving decision taken by “emergency managers” — the town switched from the Detroit municipal system, which draws from Lake Huron, and began drawing water from the Flint River.

The small industrial town, current population 98,000, is a former hub of the American auto industry. Brought to national attention in Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary “Roger and Me,” for the hardships caused by shrinking employment, the town was already floundering — and then again hard hit by the recent 2008 economic recession.

The Job-like Flint hardly needed this eminently preventable lead-poisoning water disaster.

‘In Flint, just when you think you’re on the upswing, you get kicked again’

“People are outraged that this was covered up or denied for so long, and they are really disappointed because, in Flint, just when you think you’re on the upswing, you get kicked again,” head of the Flint Jewish Federation Steven C. Low told The Times of Israel this week.

Low emphasized that not all of the 98,000 residents are affected. And although Flint is a majority black town in which 40% of residents live under the poverty line, the water crisis does not follow the lines of rich versus poor.

“We’re all in the same boat on this one when it comes to water usage,” said the father of the MacIntyre family, which took part in a chilling water usage experiment that was videoed by Michigan Radio, which has produced several in-depth reports. In the video, he spoke about more wealthy friends who are having the same problem.

However, the water crisis is just one more thing in the daily balancing act that is Flint.

“It’s not just the water. It’s the gunshots, it’s the not being able to go outside and play without supervision,” said the MacIntyre mother. “There are things here that are really wearing.”

“And the, the water goes bad,” joked the father. “So it’s like all of these things, that we’ve been dealing with, that everybody here has been dealing with, and then the water goes bad.”

Student rabbi at the Temple Beth El Reform synagogue Adam Bellows agreed with the assessment that on top of the town’s already unstable situation, the water crisis is “emotionally, a hit for the residents of Flint.”

Last Friday night, Bellows’s synagogue hosted a forum to discuss the crisis attended by some 50 members of the local Flint and Detroit Jewish communities. A donated pallet loaded with cases of water currently sits in the synagogue lobby.

Director of the Jewish Federation of Flint, Steven Low, speaks at a forum at Flint, Michigan's Reform Temple Beth El on Friday, January 22, 2016. (Adam Bellows)
Director of the Jewish Federation of Flint, Steven Low, speaks at a forum at Flint, Michigan’s Reform Temple Beth El on Friday, January 22, 2016. (Adam Bellows)

Among the facts presented at the Friday forum is that after the switch from the Detroit water system, regulators failed to ensure that the new water piped into Flint was properly treated. In the meantime, the pH level of the river water apparently caused the disintegration of lead soldering in the pipes leading into downtown Flint homes. As a result, lead was leached into their water supply.

State authorities, including Gov. Rick Snyder, were told by the Environmental Protection Agency of the potentially deadly situation in February 2015. In September, independent research noted toxic lead levels, but only in October was the water switched back to the Detroit system.

‘We need to declare Flint a disaster area’

In January, Snyder called a state of emergency and Michigan has already received $5 million in federal aid. Another $28m. is set to be approved through the state this week.

Blood monitoring of residents, particularly children, found high levels of lead, a potent neurotoxin linked to learning disabilities, lower IQ and behavioral problems. Although the water was switched, repair of the pipes has not yet been completed, and many homes are still unable to use their tap water. Many even bath and brush teeth with bottled water.

Reports differ, but according to filmmaker Moore, a Flint native, some 8,000 children are affected — from lead in their blood steam, to unsightly rashes, to deterioration in physical and mental acumen.

“We need to declare Flint a disaster area,” Moore said in a January 20 CNBC interview. “8,000 children under six [are afflicted]. Can I just say that number again? The total number of kids under six is 8,000. This is affecting all the children!”

Much of the Jewish community lives in nearby Flint Township, where the Reform, Conservative and Chabad synagogues are based, and not in Flint proper. The Jewish federation has a list of only 200 of its community who are potentially harmed.

Low said the federation is reaching out to these Jewish individuals and that there is a fund-raising effort so people can donate on the federation website. There is no need at this time to donate more water.

Seeing a long road ahead in the fallout from the water crisis, the community is more concerned with turning its efforts outwards to the broader community.

“We’re looking out for the necessities of our neighbors and our friends, particularly elderly people, and making sure they get what they need, for water, and filters and bottled water, so they can make it through this difficult time,” Chabad Rabbi Yisroel Weingarten told The Times of Israel.

Student rabbi Adam Bellows leads services in Flint's Reform Temple Beth El. (courtesy)
Student rabbi Adam Bellows leads services in Flint’s Reform Temple Beth El. (courtesy)

Low and Bellows said much of the fundraising efforts will be used for the treatment of the afflicted, especially children.

“An adult with serious lead consumption will be affected, but not devastated. But a three year old that’s been drinking this water for the past two years — that’s a significant part of his life. His body is putting that lead in places that are detrimental to growth, that can lead to neurological problems,” said Bellow.

The community is also taking steps to donate pallets of water it has received to food banks and, in particular, local Hispanic community churches.

Much of the donated water in Flint is distributed by law enforcement, said Bellows, including the National Guard. For some Hispanic residents, including many who are illegal aliens, opening the door to police is a non-starter and many have not received the donated filters, water testing kits, and cases of water. Bellows believes that having the local churches distribute may help remedy that situation.

Head of the Jewish Federation of Flint Steven Low. (courtesy)
Head of the Jewish Federation of Flint Steven Low. (courtesy)

“A lot of people are in need of help, but we’re a very resilient and strong community and people really do come together… it’s a serious problem, there’s no doubt about that, things could have been handled better, there’s no doubt about that, but we are coping, we will get through this,” said Low.

“If there’s any silver lining, it’s that there are many other towns and municipalities that are going to have a problem with lead, maybe worse, and may have been trying to ignore it for a while. But this really says you need to get out there and be proactive,” said Low.

Along with international good will, water has been pouring in to Flint. The AP reported that a bottled water company owned in part by Sean “Diddy” Combs and Mark Wahlberg pledged to donate 1 million bottles of water to the residents. Eminem, Wiz Khalifa and Big Sean are among other celebrities who have pledged support and donations to assist Flint’s water crisis.

And actor Matt Damon and Gary White, co-founders of the nonprofit, came to the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday to call attention to the desperate need for clean water in impoverished regions around the world. He said the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, is something millions of people across the globe experience every day.

‘That should never happen in the United States of America, ever’

“Imagine this outrage we feel about Flint — this justified outrage, I should say, because that should never happen in the United States of America, ever,” Damon said in an interview with AP. “But there are people for whom life is such a desperate struggle, that they’re faced every day with the choice of giving their children dirty water or no water at all.”

Aside from funding, other national steps are already being taken. In a recent article on legislative efforts to aid Flint, AP reported that Democratic Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan are expected to offer an amendment to an energy bill in the Senate aimed at protecting Flint’s water supply.

For his part, student rabbi Bellows drew inspiration — and an ironic cringe — from last week’s Bible portion in which the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds.

“What we’re talking about right now is how water is still an obstacle to us, and here’s where the Israelites are overcoming it and celebrating,” he said in disbelief and chuckled.

“It says in shirat hayam [the Song of the Sea] that the Egyptians sank to the bottom of the sea like lead,” said Bellows, whose sermon on Friday addressed the motif. “We all had a good laugh about that.”

– The Associated Press contributed to this report

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