This past December, 64 teens and 10 staff coming from 13 states and Puerto Rico, volunteered over 1,800 hours helping to rebuild homes and bring a bit of fun to children in post Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico. Although we had considered Puerto Rico as an AWB site before the hurricane, it was clear to both Young Judaea teen leadership and the staff that there was no other place that needed help more than Puerto Rico. The fact that Puerto Rico is home to generations of Young Judaeans and the use of the JCC as our “home base” gave us what we needed to make this one of the most impactful Alternative Winter Breaks in the program’s 11 year history.
Not only were we lucky to receive a generous donation from an alumnus, but teens raised over $8,000 in a self-fundraising campaign to pay for their participation.
Over the course of the 4 full days of work, teens and staff repaired or painted 13 homes in the communities of Guaynabo, Loisa, Morovis and San Juan. They built and ran two carnivals and helped to feed and distribute much needed supplies to residents of Morovis. However, no group can just descend upon a place and begin to work. We had the privilege of partnering with some outstanding volunteer organizations. Nechama – The Jewish Response to Disaster, trained and guided us in repairing roofs, SBP (St. Bernard Project) gave us the tools and direction to paint and repair flooring and infrastructure in homes and the municipalities of Loisa and Morovis connected us with residents to paint and clean some of the most damaged homes we had seen. We had the pleasure of working with local volunteers on all of these projects.
As is the approach with all Young Judaea programs, the teens spent each evening diving into topics surrounding the situation in Puerto Rico before, during and after the storm through engaging educational programs. They learned about the Island’s politics and economic struggles, heard testimony from hurricane survivors and first responders and discussed life changing issues facing community leaders and residents a year-and-a-half after the tragedy.
IsraAid, an Israel based humanitarian aid organization that provides access to safe water and mental health and psycho-social support to communities recovering from María, came in on the first night to run a simulation meant to educate the teens about their work and the idea of humanitarian aid in general. The teens also participated in staff and peer led activities around a number of topics including an emotional journey to understand what happened on September 17th and afterwards through videos and pictures and an activity that explored how impoverished communities are disproportionally affected by natural disasters.
One evening the group heard from Puerto Rico residents and Young Judaea community members David Solomiany, Saul Kleiman and Diego Mendelbaum who spoke about everything from the history of the Jewish community in Puerto Rico, opinions about independent statehood and of course, the Jewish community’s response to Hurricane Maria. On the final evening, as is the tradition for AWB, the teens participated in “Sustain the Change” which prepares them for their return home and sets the stage for them to continue working toward a better world.
After volunteering in Morovis, the group traveled through the breathtaking mountain area to visit Iglesia Cristiana Ministerios Unido, an evangelical church about 45 minutes from the town. This very special congregation, houses a Holocaust Museum established in 2007. The museum has visitors from churches, schools and camps from all over the Island. There to tour the museum, the teens were moved by the blessings given to them by the congregants and listened in wonder to the story of this little museum.
Although our educational journey is extremely important, our nightly “mishapachot” meetings gave the teens the opportunity to debrief on the day’s work and other experiences and discuss important issues.
Of course the teens and staff needed some down-time to just “be”. One afternoon, the group had the opportunity to hang out at the beach, take a pleasant hike to see a lagoon and tour Condado, and spend an afternoon in Old San Juan.
We were extremely privileged to have Diego Mendelbaum, Director of the JCC in Puerto Rico as our partner and host for the program. As a community leader, Diego leveraged his relationships with the leadership of the municipalities of Loiza and Morovis and other strong connections to help build every aspect of the program, from the food, to the work to the more relaxing aspects of the trip. Knowing that we had a home base with our family there to support us, made our week in Puerto Rico more meaningful, more important and more comfortable. Laura Mendelbaum, Diego’s wife and JCC Administrator made sure that everything was perfect and the group felt at home.
There is no question that there is so much more work that needs to be done in Puerto Rico. When asked if Young Judaea should return to the island in 2019, the answer was a resounding “yes”. Young Judaea returned to New Orleans nine times because the effects of Katrina were so devastating to that city. A final decision will be made in the coming weeks.