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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2017 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


 

December 15, 2017  RSS feed
Front Page

Text: T T T

Tampa Jews deliver aid, love, hope to Puerto Rico

By BOB FRYER Jewish Press


At, left, Rabbi Josh Hearshen of Congregation Rodeph Sholom with two children in Dorado, Puerto Rico. The rabbi and six other volunteers from Tampa painted and repaired the kids’ house and bought them shoes and Christmas presents. Above, Members of the group hand out some of the relief supplies they brought from Tampa in the city of Carolina. At, left, Rabbi Josh Hearshen of Congregation Rodeph Sholom with two children in Dorado, Puerto Rico. The rabbi and six other volunteers from Tampa painted and repaired the kids’ house and bought them shoes and Christmas presents. Above, Members of the group hand out some of the relief supplies they brought from Tampa in the city of Carolina. When Rabbi Josh Hearshen and six congregants of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Tampa made a recent trip to deliver aid to the victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, they were struck by the spirit of the people there, as well as how long the recovery process is likely to take.

“It is not a matter of months, but more of years or maybe decades before they are back to normal,” Rabbi Hearshen said.

Puerto Rico was devastated when the island was struck by Maria on Sept. 20 as a strong Category 4 storm. The group from Rodeph Sholom visited more than two months later, from Nov. 26-29, delivering assistance near the capital, San Juan. Along with the rabbi, those on the mission were Vanessa Cohn, Michael Edgerley, Michael Leeds, David Magness, Michael Sinnreich and Lynne Winderbaum.

The volunteers not only delivered essential items for families at Catholic and Jewish facilities, but also repaired homes, made friends and took time to buy shoes and toys for some children in need.

As the group flew in they could not see a single house without a blue tarp on it, signaling roof damage, Rabbi Hearshen said “You hear generators running all hours of day and night,” he said, adding that the streetlights and traffic lights are still not working in the city, making driving conditions hazardous.

Although other parts of the island are reportedly in much worse shape, Rabbi Hearshen still saw a number of downed power lines and one bridge that was washed out. Cell phone use and the ability to use credit cards, as well as water supplies in some areas, were spotty, he said.


Michael Leeds handing out relief supplies in Carolina Michael Leeds handing out relief supplies in Carolina Even in areas they visited around the capital, many homeowners had not cleaned up debris and damaged parts of their homes in fear that if they did, they might not qualify for FEMA assistance, which is slow in coming to many people.

A family from Puerto Rico with a child at Hillel Academy in Tampa helped Rabbi Hearshen and his group make a list of what sort of supplies were needed before the group left for the island. Members of the relief group stuffed suitcases with first aid supplies, batteries, water purification systems, diapers, shampoo, toothpaste, clothing, hats, and other items. Southwest Airlines officials were kind enough not to charge a fee when some bags exceeded weight limits.

On the day the group arrived, they delivered some of the items they brought along to a Catholic convent that also housed a senior living facility, and heard that after two months without power and running water, both services had just been restored.


The group from Rodeph Sholom dropping off supplies and blankets to nuns at Hogar Santa Teresa Jornet, a convent and senior center. (L-R) Vanessa Cohn, Michael Edgerley, Rabbi Josh Hearshen, David Magness, Michael Leeds, Lynne Winderbaum and Michael Sinnreich. The group from Rodeph Sholom dropping off supplies and blankets to nuns at Hogar Santa Teresa Jornet, a convent and senior center. (L-R) Vanessa Cohn, Michael Edgerley, Rabbi Josh Hearshen, David Magness, Michael Leeds, Lynne Winderbaum and Michael Sinnreich. Asked what sort of reaction he got as a Jew from folks on a predominantly Catholic island, Rabbi Hearshen said “When kids heard the word rabbi, for some of them, their eyes lit up.”

In addition to the items the group brought, Rabbi Hearshen said the congregation raised about $10,000 for relief for victims of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. He said most of that money will go to Maria victims.

A small portion of that money went to help a young boy and his sister in Dorado that the Rodeph Sholom group met on their first full day in Puerto Rico. The group had gone to paint a flood damaged house occupied by a mother, grandmother and two small children. They discovered the children were not in school because the boy’s shoes had been stolen. They took the kids to a store and bought them shoes and toys.

On the second day, the group partnered with the Chabad of Puerto Rico to distribute aid in Toa Alta, a town about 18 miles inland from San Juan.

“We watched as people came down from their small towns to stand in line and we handed out goods to over 130 families. They received food. They received medicines. They received batteries. And they received so much more. But the greatest thing they received was the gift of hope and love. We showed them we cared and we showed them that there will be light at the end of this tunnel,” Rabbi Hearshen wrote in a letter to congregants.

Later the same day, they helped repair a community center that features a theatre program where kids get second chances when they have had legal problems.

The third day the group went south of Loiza to help a family remove destroyed belongings from the bottom floor of their house, which had been flooded by more than 5 feet of water. Rabbi Hearshen noted that a lot of family items and memorabilia was destroyed.

“Their 13-year-old son’s childhood was in shambles. His PlayStation had been destroyed and so we went and bought him a new tablet on which he could play games. We wanted to help them make new memories.” he wrote.

The group also visited Sharei Zedek, a Conservative synagogue in San Juan, where they learned about that organization and “everything that they went through these past months.”

The rabbi said that although the synagogue did not suffer substantial damage, it is in financial peril as it has cost about $60,000 in fuel to keep a generator going since the hurricane.

Rabbi Hearshen said the island had “been hit by a one-two punch” – the hurricane on top of the already existing widespread poverty. But the rabbi said one thing that struck him again and again was the spirit of the Puerto Rican people, their hope and drive.

“All around the island we (saw) the words in Spanish ‘Puerto Rico rises,’” Rabbi Hearshen said, then praised the people for their “strong and uplifting spirit.” He wrote to his congregation, “It was such a beautiful thing to see that Puerto Rico is rising up again and we are part of that work.”

Already Rabbi Hearshen is planning on taking a group back to the island next year, perhaps as part of a Habitat for Humanity project.

As he told his congregation, “The concept of tzedakah is not about charity nor is it about choice, it is all about justice and all about obligations. We are not going beyond the call. We are heeding the call as we all should be… We cannot sit around in Tampa or wherever we are and wait for others to help; it is our job and our responsibility to be the help. When one person is suffering we all must feel that suffering in our cores and cry for them and work with them.”


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