Puerto Rico Jews Spearhead Grassroots Effort to Help Devastated Communities

'Let the politicians squabble. We're here to help,' says a member of the local community that’s scrambling to aid the hurricane-stricken island

Heavy rain clouds in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Loiza, Puerto Rico, September 28, 2017.
Ricardo Arduengo / AFP

After Hurricane Maria, a two-man delegation representing Puerto Rico’s Jewish community drove north on a highway littered with fallen trees to the coastal town of Loiza. Their vehicle: a battered dark blue Dodge minivan with a blown-out window, another casualty of the record winds and rain.

Loiza, population 30,000, was one of the towns hit hardest on the island, leaving many of its already poor residents without rooftops, food, water or medical supplies.

Diego Mendelbaum, director of the San Juan Jewish Community Center and the Shaare Zedeck Conservative synagogue, and David Solomiany, a community member, decided to head to Loiza after hearing that hurricanes Irma and Maria had devastated the town.

They found the town hall and asked to meet with the mayor, Julia Nazario. She gave them a list of Loiza's most urgent needs: 1,000 plastic tarps to replace lost roofs, canned food, bottled water, diapers, baby formula, disinfectants and sanitizer.

“We’ll be back soon,” Solomiany recounted telling the mayor. He and Mendelbaum said the Jewish community would “adopt” the town; they then got back in the minivan and drove away — the mayor later told them she hadn’t been so sure she would see them again.

Back in San Juan, the pair opened a PayPal account on the JCC and synagogue website, and contacted Jewish Puerto Rican family and friends in the United States to spread the word about their mission to help Loiza. Their Facebook page features running updates on their relief efforts.

“Two days later we were back,” Solomiany said. This time with flashlights, 50 tarps, cans of beans, corn, tuna fish and other food, and other supplies. “They said, ‘These people are for real’ in this town where for some it may have been the first time they were ever in touch with Jewish people.”

As he put it, “We want to take it directly to the people because the people need it now.”

The Dodge Caravan minivan that belongs to the Puerto Rico JCC that has been helping haul supplies to the hard-hit town of Loiza, September 2017.
Diego Mendelbaum

Four planes

Officials in Puerto Rico, most famously San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, have harshly criticized the sluggish pace of relief after a disaster that left 3.4 million people on the island without electricity and usually without phone or internet connections.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump, who engaged in a Twitter war against Cruz, is scheduled to visit the island.

“We are too busy trying to help the people; let the politicians squabble. We, the Jewish community, just want to help Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has given the Jewish community so much in this time of need; we want to give back. We are small in number, but we are already making a difference in Loiza,” Solomiany said.

Since launching the mission to aid Loiza, the community had raised almost $100,000 and chartered four planes to bring additional supplies there. Ten representatives of the UJA Federation of New York arrived Sunday on their own plane and delivered 1,500 pounds of supplies, working with a delegation from the Puerto Rican Jewish community, Solomiany said.

The community is also partnering with IsraAID, which showed Loiza residents how to use a water purifier and installed two of them in shelters in the Loiza area. The Jewish community is now working to bring more such purifiers to the area.

Residents of the town of Loiza, Puerto Rico line up for supplies delivered by the Puerto Rican Jewish community, September 2017.
Diego Mendelbaum

Another partner helping their relief efforts is Stronger & Better Together from Boca Raton, Florida. The Puerto Rico JCC is also hosting several health care workers from the organization Project Hope.

This weekend the mission is expecting to bring another 300 to 400 tarps to Loiza after sending out word to people to buy as many tarps as possible in American hardware and camping stores. Tarps patch up homes missing all or part of their roofs. The next phase of fundraising efforts will be on obtaining Loiza residents $100 cards that they can use to buy goods and food when stores in the area reopen.

Farms starting from scratch

Michael Berezdivin, who grew up in Puerto Rico but is based in Miami, has been flying back and forth to help with the community’s relief efforts. He said that in the initial stage of relief, Puerto Ricans most of all need water, food and gas. Later they will need funds to help rebuild their homes and businesses.

Residents line up gas cans as they wait for a gas truck to service an empty gas station after Hurricane Maria, Loiza, Puerto Rico, September 24, 2017.
Gerald Herbert / AP

“Many locals lost their jobs due to businesses getting destroyed and won’t have the money to rebuild their lives. Puerto Rico lost all its vegetation and agricultural sector,” Berezdivin wrote in an email.

“The trees that are still standing no longer have leaves and farms no longer have growth. We must start from scratch. There was flooding in many areas and homes destroyed throughout the island. I spoke to some of my employees who told me they lost everything which broke my heart.”

As the community starts the long process of long-term relief help, “We want to learn and hear stories of how other communities have helped on a large scale,” Berezdivin wrote.

Puerto Rico has a Jewish community of some 1,000 people. Most are descendants of Jewish refugees who fled Europe on the eve of World War II, some of whom first settled in Cuba and left after Fidel Castro’s revolution in the 1950s. But the first Jewish presence on the island dates to the 15th century with the arrival of conversos, Jews who outwardly converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition; these included members of Christopher Columbus’ crew.

Most of the Jews there today live in the San Juan area, and although some have suffered damage to their homes, no one was left homeless by Hurricane Maria.

“My grandparents and parents fell in love with Puerto Rico and will not let a natural disaster like this ruin our homes for a third time.  We have one of the strongest and most dedicated communities in the world and we’re here to rebuild Puerto Rico,” Berezdivin wrote.

“Remember Puerto Rico and come visit our beautiful island .... Watch how the Puerto Rican people rebuild their island and remember to get in touch with the local Jewish community to experience an unforgettable Shabbat dinner.”