Eight weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, Chabad’s emissary in San Juan still faces a daily challenge: balancing his organization’s needs with those of the community it supports.
“We were fortunate that our electricity came back on just over a week ago,” he said last week in a telephone interview, “but 65 percent of the island’s residents are still without electricity.”
Zarchi, together with employees and volunteers, heads out each day to deliver food, drink and moral support to some of San Juan’s neediest citizens. “We just hope and pray they receive power quickly because it’s a very difficult reality to live” without it, he said.
Many of the areas Zarchi and his workers visit are also still without a phone signal — or even water. “As long as there’s a need out there, we hope to be able to do our part in being a resource for those who are less fortunate,” he said. “When people are in pain, you respond.”
Yet Chabad is facing its own challenges. The hurricane ripped off a large section of the synagogue’s roof, and extensive water damage has affected the sanctuary, the walls, the ceiling and the shul’s electrical outlets.
“When people are in pain, you respond.” — Rabbi Mendel Zarchi
The damage assessment, delayed for weeks, finally came in at $120,000. With a $50,000 deductible that Chabad must meet, along with a $35,000 bill for a generator that provided power over the past two months, Zarchi admitted that Chabad faces a considerable financial challenge. To date, no repairs have been undertaken, but “it’s a process,” he said. “It’s hard to find people to respond and do tasks on a good day.”
Zarchi said his challenge is to devise a budget to cover the repairs, but fundraising efforts have been stymied in the wake of the hurricane.
“We’re in a great tourist zone but practically every major hotel in the area is closed,” he said. “Weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs at Chabad have been canceled.” These events typically generate considerable income for Chabad, said Zarchi, who said others in Puerto Rico’s Jewish community also are suffering from closures caused by storm damage.
Still, Zarchi remains optimistic. “It’s about surviving the short term — the next six to eight months — until things get better and tourism returns,” he said. “It’s definitely a challenge but we have the belief and the faith we’ll persevere.”
However, he added, “that doesn’t diminish our resolve to go out and help the greater community.” Zarchi said those wishing to support Chabad’s hurricane-relief efforts can donate at chabadpr.com.
Zarchi said he drew strength from the haftarah read on Nov. 4 for parashat Vayeira. It recounts how the prophet Elisha revived the deceased child of the Shunammite woman.
“This woman had faith that she could run to the prophet in the time of her direst need — when her child had already died — and that he would be able to help her,” he said. “To me, the story is about how in dire situations, with our determination and our faith, we can transform reality, make a difference and bring healing to the pain.”