At the end of January, I went to Puerto Rico with seven other community leaders from Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. We went because there is a Jewish community in Puerto Rico that needs to feel connected. It was an amazing opportunity to see the difference that a small number of people can make when they are determined to engage in tikkun olam, repairing the world.
I was reminded of the fable about a man walking on a beach covered with starfish after a storm. He casts one starfish at a time back into the sea. He might not get to all of them, but his efforts make a huge difference to each one he saves. So even before we left on our journey, we did one thing: We each brought a duffel filled with medical supplies as our baggage, through the Luggage for Life program run by the Afya Foundation — a recovery organization that provides medical and other items to international health clinics.
I was part of the group because I serve as chair of the Network of Independent Communities (NIC) of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). The network is made up of Jewish communities — like Puerto Rico’s — that are too small to maintain local organizations such as JCCs or social service agencies but are committed to giving to the collective UJA/federation system. The experience of going to Puerto Rico representing the NIC as well as my home federation was priceless. We were accompanied by NIC regional director Ed Finkel, who has worked tirelessly with Puerto Rico’s Jewish community for years. Ed, who is also a member of the Greater MetroWest family, was our expert and scholar-in-residence.
We were on the island for roughly 60 hours. While there, “Talk Less, Do More” was our motto. Looking back, it’s hard to believe we packed so much into such a short time.
We first worked with a team of marvelous young volunteers from NECHAMA, an American-based Jewish organization that responds to disasters in the United States. Eighteen months after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, they are still repairing homes across the island, specifically the roofs, so many of which are covered with blue tarps. Our group was assigned to work on the home of a woman named Olga. Leaks in the cement roof of her house had been poorly repaired with inadequate materials, including tar, plastic filler, and adhesive paper. Our task was to remove as much of these materials as possible in order to uncover the cracks so they could be repaired properly. This was only one of 50 houses in that neighborhood on NECHAMA’s repair list — but our group made a difference.
That evening we had the privilege of seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda in a special performance of his hit show “Hamilton.” Seeing the show was a thrill, but more thrilling was the audience’s response to Miranda, who is an icon and a source of great pride to the people of Puerto Rico. He and his father, a native of the island, have done incredible work through their Miranda Foundation, raising awareness of the struggles of the Puerto Ricans as well as sending a loud and clear message that Puerto Rico is open for business!
We spent the next day with representatives of IsraAID — the Israeli NGO that works in disaster relief efforts around the world — to learn about the needs of folks in the countryside, heading south to a small community that was entirely cut off after Hurricane Maria. IsraAID’s work in Puerto Rico is funded in part by a grant from the Emergency Relief Fund administered by JFNA, with dollars from all the federations, including ours. Immediately after the hurricane, IsraAID distributed home-use water filters to 1,400 people who had relied on electric water pumps, which were useless after the storm. Since then they’ve nearly completed their long-term solution — a slow-sand, gravity-based water filtration system. IsraAID also worked with volunteers from the Puerto Rican Jewish community to develop an educational program, and they’ve trained 60 teachers who work with at-risk youth in stress management techniques to deal with those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of the hurricane.
Next, we visited Temple Beth Shalom, in the heart of the Condado section of San Juan, for dinner and a tour. Shortly after the hurricane, our federation’s board of trustees allocated $10,000 from our emergency fund for the synagogue to purchase and install solar energy panels. The congregation was grateful for the gift and to know that the mainland Jewish community was concerned for them. This Reform congregation is served by a rotation of visiting rabbis, including Greater MetroWest’s own Rabbi Norman Patz, who served for many years at Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove. Patz and his wife, Naomi, were in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria hit. They shared with us the stories of the devastation, the damage to the synagogue, and how isolated they and their fellow
On our final day, we took a look into Puerto Rico’s future, with Jon Borschow, the founder and chair of the Foundation for Puerto Rico and a leading member of the Puerto Rican Jewish community. Jon and his team are committed to a bright economic future for Puerto Rico. We went to the beautiful new Chabad House, where Rabbi Mendel Zarchi and his wife, Rochi, gave us a tour. They described how they, their children, and members of the community sheltered there during Maria, huddled in a large storage closet as the wind pounded the building. Zarchi reminded us that the word “adam” (Hebrew for man) has no plural. When we act together and demonstrate love for our fellow man, he said, we are one.
When I think about all the extraordinary people we met in the course of our short time in Puerto Rico, I can see how their decisions to take action might have started with one simple step, but these individual acts combined to bring repair to Puerto Rico and to the world. It was a privilege to encounter them, to work with them, and, in some small way, to make a difference ourselves.
Leslie Dannin Rosenthal is a past president of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.