Mission Heads to Puerto Rico for Hurricane Relief

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Participants with orange duffel bags
Members of the Philadelphia Jewish community hold orange duffel bags full of medical supplies to be donated to those in need in Puerto Rico. The group traveled to the island in early April to tour ongoing relief efforts on the island and to volunteer. (Photo courtesy of Gail Norry)

Gail Norry said there wasn’t a single leaf left on any tree after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico in September 2017. But when she recently stepped off a plane onto the island, she saw how the lives of its inhabitants have improved due to the ongoing efforts of nonprofits from around the world.

In the first week of April, a delegation of Philadelphia Jewish community members toured Puerto Rico to witness and participate in ongoing relief efforts. One of the seven in the group was Norry, chair of Jewish Federation of North America’s Emergency Committee and also a board vice chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. She said the trip was a chance to see the dedication of the Jewish people to help those in need.

“I was really excited to have that opportunity to go down there,” Norry said. “The Jewish Federation system does so many incredible things on a daily basis that people aren’t necessarily aware of. … It just proves why it’s so important that we have a federation, so that when emergencies strike, we have a system in place that is there to help people in times of disaster and on a daily basis.”

The U.S. territory comprised of more than 140 islands, cays, islets and atolls in the Caribbean is home to more than 1,500 Jews. One of its cornerstones is the Jewish Community Center in Puerto Rico. The storm destroyed homes and businesses in a span of three weeks. People were virtually left without power for months, making access to drinking water difficult. Despite the difficulty, JCC Puerto Rico President Diego Mandelbaum said the JFNA didn’t hesitate to act.

“Most of the Jewish people in Puerto Rico fell on their feet, but we came together to help disadvantaged communities,” Mandelbaum said. “The JFNA — they were very quick and generous to respond. Just as one example, they sent many power generators. Just imagine how difficult it was not only to ship, but to [send by] air.”

The group spent three nights in San Juan. Each day, members would travel to various villages to visit with both Jewish and secular agencies, including IsraAID, the Israel-based nongovernmental organization that travels to communities around the world to assist after disasters. One of the group’s ongoing projects is the distribution of water filtration systems in outlying areas of Puerto Rico. The nonprofit was also working to provide post-traumatic stress counseling to those affected by the destruction.

Norry said she was impressed by IsraAID’s work.

“They like to say they’re FILO — first in, last out,” Norry said. “They consider themselves masters of disasters and the human face of Israel.”

The Philadelphia delegation brought orange duffel bags filled with medical supplies that they handed over to the New York-based Afya Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that provides medical supplies to those in need.

The next day, the group visited a community center in another town. There they met volunteers from Project TEN, an Israel-based international development program that helps coordinate volunteer efforts and Jewish activism. The group is arranging cohorts of volunteers to help at places like the center, where they led kids in games and activities.

The group then helped paint a woman’s house. Its roof had been rebuilt after the storm, but it had yet to be painted. This was organized through Foundation for Puerto Rico, an organization founded by Jewish businessman Jon Borschow to help the general community. Norry and others were so motivated by what they saw, they went to a local Walmart to buy supplies for the needy.

Each day, the group also visited with the local Jewish community. The delegation made stops at synagogues and at the JCC. Mandelbaum said he appreciated the group’s visit. “They were able to learn first-hand about the day-to-day of the Jewish community.”

Many of the programs visited were either funded or in some way supported by JFNA, which so far has provided $1.6 million for hurricane victims. Norry said JFNA contributed funds to the JCC not only to help it rebuild, but to make it better than before. That included the installation of solar panels and a washer, dryer and showers so the facility could better help people in case of another natural disaster.

“It was really enlightening for everybody and people enjoyed the hands-on opportunities that we had, to bring the duffels and to paint the house and to meet some of the people face to face,” Norry said. “It’s important that we have multiple types of opportunities for people to be engaged with our Jewish federation and the work that we do.”

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