Daniel Gohar, 16, a junior at Golda Och Academy (GOA) in West Orange, said that as a volunteer in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico earlier this month, he was particularly struck by the continuing upheaval in the lives of the inhabitants more than a year after Hurricane Maria and its aftermath inflicted catastrophic damage and death on the island. After Maria made landfall on Sept. 20, 2017, an estimated 3,000 people lost their lives.
“It’s amazing to see how these people have been living the last 14 months, and how I’m living,” he said. “The storm is not impacting my life. It was in the news, and we talked about it for a week and that was it,” while the people of Puerto Rico continue to suffer the effects of what was reportedly the island’s worst natural disaster on record.
Daniel, who is from Livingston, was among 20 GOA students selected for the school’s annual service learning trip. They appear to be the first Jewish school group from MetroWest to go to Puerto Rico to help rebuild communities there since the hurricane hit. During lunch at GOA on Dec. 12, four of the group members spoke with NJJN about the experience. In addition to Daniel, they included his classmate Amy Gaffen, 17, of Springfield, and seniors Fanya Hoffman of Bloomfield and Itai Rekem of South Orange, both 17.
Every year for the past 13 years, GOA has taken a group to New Orleans to continue to rebuild areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But dean of students Jordan Herskowitz, who organized the Dec. 2-5 trip, felt the catastrophe of that storm no longer resonated for GOA students. “They were 2, 3, 4 years old during Katrina,” he said. “They’ve lived through much more recent natural disasters, and although the trips to New Orleans were impactful and we had great relationships there, it was time for a change.”
The group spent the bulk of their time working to clean up two homes on the outskirts of the capital, San Juan, where they stayed. Their first day’s work assignment was organized by the JCC of Puerto Rico, and on the second day by Nechama, a Jewish disaster-relief group based in Minnesota.
Amy was proud of the work she did as a volunteer. She said that on her second day in Puerto Rico, “We were taking the trash out of the house, getting rid of couches, mattresses, lifting heavy things and dropping them from the top floor.” At the start of the day, the corner where they were to bring the debris was empty; by day’s end, she described, the pile of rubbish “was seven feet tall.”
The GOA students met with Jewish peers from San Juan, and visited the church-based Holocaust Museum of Puerto Rico in Morovis, which was established in 2007 and is now affiliated with Yad Vashem and the Anti-Defamation League. They heard from experts about the pollution of Puerto Rico’s estuaries and efforts to ameliorate it, met with representatives of IsraAid to discuss that Israeli humanitarian organization’s work in Puerto Rico, and even had some downtime on the beach. Their trip coincided with the first days of Chanukah, so the classmates celebrated the holiday together.
Fanya said that by the end of the second day, she could see signs of progress from their labor on a heavily damaged home. She reported that the students said, “‘Oh, this is the kitchen, this is a bathroom,’” as the day went on. “There was so much you could do with the bones” of the house. She admitted one indulgence: “It was fun to throw things off the roof!”
Some of the teens said their jobs on the first day were tedious — like scraping paint from the ceiling of one home — but others said that even this work was fulfilling.
Itai said that there was something of a dichotomy with regard to the conditions of the homes. The first house they worked on was “kind of beautiful,” he said, but it had “so many internal problems.” Still, the family was able to live inside. On the second day, they worked on a home in such disrepair that “you felt like you wouldn’t be able to go near it because it was falling apart,” he said.
Amid the debris in an upstairs room, Itai found a toy slingshot. He showed it to the owner, who laughed “as if he remembered using it when he was younger or with his kids,” Itai said. “I just thought it was sad. The whole idea of one day losing all you have is so scary to think about.”
Daniel said he was actually expecting the situation to be worse than it was. “San Juan looked beautiful,” he said. “Most of the buildings had been repaired,” though he acknowledged that it was a different story with the outlying areas.
The students were surprised to learn that the teens in San Juan generally plan events and celebrations on their own because the Jewish community is so small. “They do Shabbat as a group and plan different activities for themselves,” said Itai, who realized how much teens in New Jersey take the programming organized for them by their schools, synagogues, and organizations for granted.
While the predominant purpose of their visit was to make a positive impact on the lives of the families in Puerto Rico, the trip was also transformative for the students. “As soon as I got home, I looked up Nechama” for additional opportunities to volunteer, said Fanya. Amy, whose family often travels together on vacation, said because of the experience she plans to talk to her parents about including a service aspect on their next trip.
Said Itai, “Giving money to causes is obviously one way to help, but it’s not as impactful to people as going out and helping physically.
“If you go out and actually help, it will give you a better sense of how people are living, and what kind of help they really need.”