After Hurricane Maria disrupts Rosh Hashanah, Puerto Rico’s Jews vow to ‘start living again’
Rabbi Norman Patz stood on a 13th-floor balcony overlooking the flooded streets, stripped trees and downed power lines of the Condado neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
It was Sept. 25, the first weekday after Rosh Hashanah, and Patz had no way of communicating with the majority of his congregants at Temple Beth Shalom; Hurricane Maria had knocked out the island’s communication grid.
“The irony of the thing is that we’re here to celebrate the beginning of the new year, and we wish each other a shanah tovah, and this crap is all around us,” he told the Journal, speaking on a cell phone he managed to keep charged thanks to his building’s diesel generator.
The historic hurricane delivered devastating winds and rain that halted the rhythms of normal life on the island, disrupting synagogue services at the holiest point in the Jewish calendar. Some 1,500 Jews live on the island, mostly concentrated in San Juan, forming the largest Jewish community in the Caribbean.
At Temple Beth Shalom, a Reform congregation, services for the first day of Rosh Hashanah were cancelled. On the second day of the holiday, however, 15 people showed up, according to Patz.
Though some second-floor classrooms at the synagogue flooded due to driving rain, the sanctuary had been spared flooding. But the lack of air conditioning rendered the sanctuary hot and airless — so congregants carried folding chairs across the street and held a service underneath the cover of a drive-through window of a bank.
The Chabad Jewish Center of Puerto Rico, in a touristy area of San Juan, took on hundreds of gallons of water, the center’s director Rabbi Mendel Zarchi told Chabad.org.
“The natural flow of water on Rosa Street, where Chabad is located, is toward the north, in the direction of the ocean,” . “At 5:30 a.m., there was a raging river with waves about 3 feet high flowing in the opposite direction, towards the south.”
Emerging from the synagogue, where he took shelter, Zarchi said he encountered “blasted-out windows, toppled utility poles mangled with an overwhelming amount of downed trees [and] smashed cars.”
He said the synagogue still managed to attract a prayer quorum on both days of the holiday.
By Sept. 25, a relief fund had been set up on the center’s website to raise emergency funds for food and water distribution, fuel for Chabad’s generator, repairs to the synagogue building and a 24-hour armed guard to protect the synagogue from looters.
Representatives for the island’s oldest congregation, Shaarey Zedeck Synagogue, could not be reached for a status update, as dialed phone calls met with error messages. But in the hurricane’s wake, the Conservative congregation set up a fund “to aid our Synagogue and vulnerable communities in Puerto Rico,” according to its website.
The downed communication network posed a challenge for those hoping to deliver aid.
Patz, who commutes to Puerto Rico from New Jersey to officiate for the High Holy Days, said the Union for Reform Judaism and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) had reached out with offers of help.
“They’ve offered all kinds of things — personal help, monetary help, anything that we need,” he said. “And I said to all of them, ‘Listen, we can’t assess the needs. We can’t contact people. We don’t know.’”
Hurricane Maria comes as Jewish organizations are still working to meet the needs of the communities impacted by Hurricane Harvey in southeast Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida. The JFNA is now collecting funds for victims of all the year’s hurricanes, to be distributed as needed.
“We have been actively engaged with the leadership of the Jewish community in Puerto Rico and are working to bring immediate relief resources,” JFNA spokesperson Rebecca Dinar said in an email to the Journal. “We anticipate that the needs of the community will be significant and once we have a clear idea of what those needs are we will determine the best way to support and help them.”
Meanwhile, Patz, 79, said he and his wife were stuck walking up and down the 13-story staircase to the apartment loaned to him by a congregant, as the power outage had rendered the elevator useless. “We’re just walking the calories right off,” he said.
He described Puerto Ricans as a resilient community that would inevitably bounce back from the tragedy.
“As we celebrate our new year, we do the best we can,” he said. “The spirit of renewal is the thing that says get up and start living again. And that’s what people here are trying to do.”