When students, families, and staff at Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union heard about the Feb. 27 earthquake in Chile, they knew they had to help. After all, for the past six years the school has had a special connection with the South American country.
The 10th grade Chilean Exchange Program pairs each Schechter participant with a Chilean student who attends the Instituto Hebreo in Santiago. Chilean students visit Schechter during their summer vacation (our winter) for a month and tour, participate in community service projects, and attend Schechter, where they interact with all the students. During Schechter’s summer break, students make an “exchange” visit to Chile.
After the quake, program coordinator Gail Shapiro reached out to Instituto Hebreo and the area’s Jewish community. “Thankfully no one in the community that we know has suffered any physical harm, and there was minimal structural damage to their homes and school,” said Shapiro. “Nonetheless, we wanted to help the greater Chilean community.”
Through her synagogue, Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, Shapiro and a group of co-congregants, together with Rabbi Tzvi Graetz, executive director of Masorti Olami/World Council of Conservative Synagogues, connected with Rabbi Angel Kreiman of the Comunidad Israelita de Concepcion, the sole synagogue in Concepcion, the town about 200 miles south of Santiago that was at the epicenter of the earthquake.
“We learned we were the first group of people to formally contact him outside of Chile since the earthquake, and he was deeply touched by our effort,” said Shapiro. She discovered that the synagogue, the only religious home to approximately 600 Jews in and around Concepcion, suffered significant damage. In addition to the approximately $200,000 needed to rebuild the synagogue, Shapiro said, there was an immediate need to help families observe Passover.
Shapiro reached out to the Schechter Chilean exchange families, current and those from the past two years, requesting that each “adopt” a Concepcion family for Passover.
The response, said Shapiro, has been overwhelming. “It is truly heartwarming how our community has come together to offer support for our friends in Concepcion,” she said. The families demonstrated that “among brothers and sisters, there is no distance — entre hermanos y hermanas, no hay distancia.”
On March 17, Shapiro sent to the Masorti World Council close to $4,000 from approximately 25 exchange program families, faculty, and staff for the Concepcion Relief Fund. L’Mad (the school’s National Honor Society chapter) contributed $360, and the SSDS Parents’ Association gave $1,500.
Solomon Schechter “has done amazing mitzva work,” said Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Agudath Israel. “What a great story of ma’ot hitim” — the mitzva of providing the needy with matza and other items for Pesach observance.