A few days before heading to Puerto Rico last month to pitch in with relief efforts following Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island on Sept. 20, Lori Shocket was running on the treadmill in her Thousand Oaks home, sweating, her mind racing.
It wasn’t nerves.
She and her husband, Neil, both licensed physicians, have more than 15 years of volunteer experience, responding to natural disasters in places like Haiti, Guatemala and even Houston, where Hurricane Harvey hit in August.
But mid-workout, a thought struck her: Something about this time was different.
“I realized we would be in Puerto Rico on Yom Kippur,” she said from San Juan via spotty cellphone coverage.
Even though Shocket calls herself “mostly not religious” and the couple isn’t affiliated with a synagogue, Shocket had scoured the internet for a place to attend services on the island while still on the treadmill.
“It was important to me to seek out a service on Yom Kippur,” she said. “I felt it was important to connect to a Jewish community when you’re putting yourself in an uncompromising, uncertain situation.”
After several attempts, she finally spoke to Diego Mendelbaum, the religious leader and community director of the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Puerto Rico in San Juan.
“He instantly told me, yes, you’re welcome to come to services,” she said.
Then she mentioned that her group of 10 also needed a place to say. With the island ravaged and accommodations hard to come by, Mendelbaum offered up the JCC ballroom, its event space, as a place to stay.
Founded in 1958 by American Jews, the JCC of Puerto Rico serves 130 families in and around San Juan, the capital. It has a sanctuary, a ballroom for events like b’nai mitzvahs and weddings, a cemetery, a Holocaust memorial monument, a garden, a religious school and an active youth group associated with Young Judea. Puerto Rico as a whole is home to approximately 1,500 Jews.
The Shockets arrived on Sept. 29, erev Yom Kippur, in one of the first waves of volunteers flown in by Project Hope, a global health education and humanitarian assistance nonprofit organization they had worked with previously. Their impact was almost immediate.
Just an hour before taking off for Puerto Rico, they secured a leukemia medication they had been asked to procure for a 59-year-old man who was in desperate need of the life-saving drug. When they stepped off the plane in San Juan, they were met by the patient’s nephew, eager to get the medication to his ailing uncle.
“He was incredibly grateful,” Shocket said.
Shocket’s group rented cars at the airport and drove straight to the JCC. Upon arrival, they were greeted by warm smiles and a chorus of nearly 100 chanting voices in the middle of Kol Nidre services.
“We just dropped our bags and followed the music. It was a very cool way to begin this whole process and this mission,” she said. “People knew who we were and they were very warm when they met us. Everyone was dressed beautifully, and we were filthy and gross with our big backpacks on.”
Mendelbaum, although not ordained, functions as the JCC’s de facto rabbi in leading services. He also runs a small law practice in San Juan. He was there to welcome Shocket and her colleagues. In a phone call with the Journal, he praised them for interrupting their busy lives.
“I think that it’s a mitzvah, and it’s unbelievable,” he said. “They stop their lives, they stop earning money for their own sustenance to help people in need and volunteer. There’s not much to add to that. It’s the ultimate in tzedakah.”
Mendelbaum said this year’s services made for an inspiring showing, perhaps “more meaningful” than past years, given the circumstances.
He told the Journal that almost everyone in his congregation has at least some damage to their homes in the form of fallen trees, downed power lines and flooding. Most, including his family, he said, are “living uphill” without electricity, and some don’t have running water.
The JCC itself incurred some flooding and damage to its garden and outer gates. Many congregants, about half by his estimation, fled to Florida or other parts of the United States to stay with family.
After settling in, Shocket and her fellow volunteers got to work, setting up a base in the ballroom, laying out medical supplies they brought and their own drinking water and food. They slept there and showered in a basement bathroom normally reserved for the center’s security guard. With the building’s electricity running on diesel generators and a finite amount of fuel, there was no air conditioning.
“It’s freaking hot and miserable,” Shocket said, adding that it was difficult to sleep there. “And I’ve been to a lot of developing countries and dealt with heat and humidity.”
For the next week, Shocket and company woke up early each day, sneaking out before 7 a.m. when services began in the adjacent sanctuary. The days all started with a stop at the local Walmart, stocking up on as many supplies as possible. Wearing scrubs and flashing medical-volunteer paperwork, they were allowed to bypass snaking lines that kept people waiting for hours. Their main relief target was Loiza, a small coastal municipality just over 20 miles east of San Juan that was gutted by the storm. Mendelbaum and JCC volunteers have donated more than 1,200 tarps to Loiza residents so far to serve as makeshift roofs for damaged homes.
“It was important to me to seek out a service on Yom Kippur. I felt it was important to connect to a Jewish community when you’re putting yourself in an uncompromising, uncertain situation.” – Lori Shocket
“The farther away from San Juan [you go], the worse it is and the harder it is to communicate with cellphones,” Shocket said.
In Loiza, Shocket and her group used walkie-talkies. They spent most of their days going back and forth between the two cities, making Walmart runs and delivering prescription medicines, water, food and other supplies to people in schools made up as shelters.
Shocket said people in San Juan were waiting in line for more than two hours for a cold Coke at a Burger King, one of the few restaurants still open.
Most of the medical conditions Shocket has encountered in Loiza are chronic. People need their prescriptions filled. Stress and the struggle to fulfill basic human needs like hygiene also are evident, she said. One of her patients, a diabetic amputee woman, told her she hadn’t showered in over a week.
“She gave me detailed instructions on where to find her favorite perfume at her house and I got it for her,” Shocket said.
Shocket told the Journal that she draws inspiration from the strength of San Juan’s Jewish community in the midst of such trying times.
“To see that community getting together in the middle of all this desperation — because, remember, the people in the sanctuary are victims, too, and have lost homes, businesses — to see them still in shul listening to music and davening, it was pretty incredible,” she said. “Despite everything, they’re still there. That was special to me.”