Pastor Tito Carlos attending the bris of his great nephew. Photo courtesy Yanira Quinones.

A Puerto Rican Jew and the Aftermath of Hurricane Maria

For one Jewish educator, the start of the New Year was bittersweet.

I am glad that the High Holidays are over, but not for the reasons that you might think. Even though I ate apples and honey, this holiday season was not filled with easy joy for me. On Erev Rosh Hashanah, the day before the New Year, I was doing my last-minute Rosh Hashanah runaround, but this time it was so different. My family in Puerto Rico was sitting in dark, hot rooms, with supplies they gathered days before.  

When I should have turned my attention to prayer and reflection,  I found myself calling my family members each in turn: Tio Carlos, Titi Ivette, Titi Betty, Titi Carmen, Titi Juning. But I could not get through. The whole island lost all communications. There was no way for me or my mom to know if my family were surviving the monster, Maria. As the holiday season began, I sat at the dinner table not knowing.  

My mother-in-law served the traditional Ashkenazi fare of roasted chicken, sweet noodle and potato kugels, and sautéed vegetables. The table was completely full. As the steam came off the food, I felt a massive amount of guilt in the pit of my stomach. How could I sit down with all this hot food in front of me when I didn’t even know if my family survived the hurricane?

There is a Jewish community in Puerto Rico with established synagogues. They have all been impacted by Maria. Though I have chosen Judaism and dedicated my life to Jewish education, my family in Puerto Rico is Christian. Through the holidays, as I reflected on the Jewish values of community, charity and helping others, I could not help but consider on how many of these values are shared and lived by my Puerto Rican Christian relatives.  

Titi Ivette on a visit to New York. Photo courtesy Yanira Quinones.

My Titi –Aunt — Ivette has engaged in a lifetime of community outreach. In the past, after other tropical storms, Titi Ivette would climb up mountains, cutting down branches to clear paths so that food could be brought to people cut off from the world. Today, she doesn’t have any running water or anyone who is able to help her. Weeks after the storm, she still cannot count on having a hot meal each day.

Tio — Uncle — Carlos, was a school teacher and is a pastor. I admire his spirit and he respects my choice of being a Jew. He is always so supportive, particularly when he attended my son’s brit milah. He has dedicated his entire life to helping clothe the poor, feed the hungry and counsel those in despair. Maria completely destroyed his home. Despite his situation, losing his home and not having fresh water, he continues to do his work with so much love.

As a Jewish educator who leads services, during the High Holy Days, I was faced with the task of publicly appearing happy while internally, I was consumed by helplessness. This helpless feeling was a heavy burden to carry because I could not do anything for my family or communities in Puerto Rico.

Eventually I was able to reach my family members but still, I could not do anything. My uncle’s home is gone. My aunts and their families are isolated with little food and no electricity. I was overwhelmed by guilt, when eating a hot meal for Rosh Hashanah dinner with my family and hearing complaints that it was “too hot” in the apartment – all the while my family in Puerto Rico were literally trapped in their homes with no air conditioning, sweltering, too afraid to go outside because of roaming gangs of desperate people.

It seems to me that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma got more attention in the Jewish community. Maybe it was simply the timing of Hurricane Maria — hitting as we prepared for the High Holidays — maybe it was because people are not aware of the impact on the Jewish communities of Puerto Rico. But now that the holidays are over, I hope that as Jews we will be able to find time and space to remember our fellow Americans (yes, Puerto Ricans are American citizens) and help the island’s citizens, of all faiths, rebuild. I am hoping people will donate and will get in touch with their representatives to encourage them to help our American sisters and brothers on the islands.

Let us not forget the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria. I know, I cannot.

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