Artist’s Legacy Helps Disaster Victims Make a New House a Home

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This article was originally published in The Jewish Observer.

March 30, 2021
by Barbara Dab
The late Kaaren Engel was a woman who was able to make any space a comfortable home. When her own home and art studio were lost in the historic flood in 2010, according to her daughter Zoe, “She was devastated, and hope felt very far away.” Of course she wasn’t alone; thousands lost their homes and, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the flood, tornadoes tore through Nashville once again leaving destruction in their wake. For Kaaren, the help she received from the local community and in particular, Jewish Family Service, was the lifeline she needed to rebuild her home and business. The same is true for many others who turned to JFS for help after these natural disasters. And when the rebuilding is complete and families begin to move forward, a special piece of art created by Kaaren becomes part of their new home and continues her legacy of gratitude.

When Dick Krebs returned home from a business trip the morning of May 2, 2010, he could already tell trouble was coming. The heavy rain that had been following since the day before was quickly filling the creeks, streets and underpasses and by the time he made it to his River Plantation home, the water had risen alarmingly. His then 86-year-old mother in law lived nearby, too. Dick managed to get her and his wife Janet to safety. Not only that, Dick’s son, who lived in West Meade with his wife and baby, watched in horror as a large tree on his property crashed through the middle of his house. Thankfully no one in the Krebs family was injured. Dick’s house was filled with six feet of water and his mother-in-law’s house was completely destroyed by the flood waters. Dick says in the immediate aftermath, many in the community were there to help, from longtime friends, FEMA and Jewish Family Service, just to name a few. He says, “The Jewish community was very generous. We were helped by some wonderful lifelong friends and Jewish Family Service helped us replace some major household appliances.”

Amy McCoy and her family spent most of Sunday, May 2nd hauling possessions up the stairs of their Bellevue home to the second floor. By the time they were finished, they found they were trapped, flood waters blocking their safe passage out the front door. Their next door neighbor was in the same situation and both families yelled through their windows as the rain poured down, trying to figure out their next move. Amy says it was an emergency whistle they kept in their master bedroom that finally alerted someone in a boat paddling through the neighborhood. Both families were rescued, but the McCoy’s home was badly damaged. Amy says the help her family received from JFS made all the difference. “Jewish Family Service is a phenomenal part of the Jewish Community in Nashville. What they do goes above and beyond what I know happens in other communities,” she says.

And Zoe Engel, Kaaren Engel’s oldest child, remembers her own experience as a college student watching the news coverage of the flood. “I remember watching on TV and my mom’s apartment was right there, on 2nd Ave.,” says Zoe, “She lost everything.” And for someone used to being strong, used being the caregiver, Kaaren was unaccustomed to asking for help. But Zoe says this time, she was the one who needed it and Jewish Family Service was there. And it was out of gratitude for what Zoe says was JFS’ unconditional generosity, that Kaaren created a new style of art centered around Jewish blessings. According to JFS Clinical Director, Toni Jacobsen, the idea sprung out of a conversation she had with Kaaren during a JFS Chesed Dinner. “I wanted to do something for the families we helped after the flood, and Kaaren had the idea to create the, ‘Birkat HaBayit,’ piece.” Zoe Engel says the experience creating this was cathartic for Kaaren, as well. “This was very different from the rest of her art. She said it was very meditative to put all her energy into this piece after all the destruction.” And Pam Kelner, Executive Director of JFS, says, “If you ever met Kaaren, her spirit and positive energy flowed through every interaction that you had with her. This made her the perfect person to create a piece of art that conveyed the message that we at JFS wanted to send to the people whose homes were destroyed by the May 2010 floods and subsequentially, the March 3rd tornadoes. That message includes one of our Jewish values that is part of JFS’s mission, bringing Shalom Bayit, or peace to the home. The words of the Birkat Habayit “Let this home be filled with the blessing of joy and peace” serve as a reminder of the resilience of the human spirit, even in the face of destruction.“

The painting was first given to families on the one-year anniversary of the flood to commemorate all they had survived, and to serve as a symbol of hope for the future. The families all say the piece is not only beautiful but also brings comfort and a reminder of the help they received. Amy McCoy knew Kaaren as another parent in her son’s religious school class at West End Synagogue. She says, “I always felt a closeness with Kaaren. She had such a good spirit and a great smile. Being given a piece of her art is a tangible, thoughtful and forward thinking gift.” Jeff Krebs agrees that it was a special reminder of the help they received from JFS, “They helped so much with the rebuilding. The painting hangs in our entry hallway and we look at it whenever we leave or come home.” The artwork is also being given to families whose homes suffered catastrophic damage in last year’s tornadoes.

Just as the, “Birkat Habayit,” piece serves as a blessing for the home, there is another tradition Jewish Family Service has for those building a new family through adoption. Kaaren Engel created a special piece centered around the Shecheyanu blessing for adoptive families, each of whom works closely with JFS. Clinical Director Toni Jacobsen says, “The adoption process is a difficult and emotional venture. We have the privilege of working with families throughout the entire process, similar to a birth coach.” Toni says the new families receive the artwork at the final home visit, “It’s a proud moment for all of us and giving the artwork has become a ritual.” Toni says Kaaren was a strong advocate of adoption and was proud of JFS’ work with the LGBT community.

Kaaren Engel was diagnosed with cancer in 2015 and passed away in 2016. Her legacy lives on through her art and also through her children, Zoe, Simon and Iris. They are all proud of her contribution to the local community and are happy JFS has chosen to continue honoring her through these gifts. The three recently revised the Artist’s Statement that accompanies each piece. It reads in part:

“The profuse support shown during the March 2020 tornadoes continues the tradition of how the entire Nashville community and Jewish Family Service actively responds to tragedy and uplifts those most in need of help. We know our mother would be honored to share her prayer for the home with those who need a sign of better days to come.”