‘Renewed spirits’ return home from TOV Puerto Rico relief trip

A participant reflects on TOV's four-day mission to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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Volunteers gather with homeowner, Jesus, who was so appreciative for their work on his home, after eight months of an uninhabitable second floor.

In May, eight months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, traveled with 18 other TOV volunteers to San Juan to help out with relief efforts.  

On the 4-day trip-in partnership with NECHAMA - Jewish Response to Disaster-we repaired homes of at-risk Puerto Ricans who have largely been forgotten in the months since the hurricane.  

As my new friend and fellow volunteer, Josh Orlan, said about his experience on the trip: "My body is exhausted, but my spirit is renewed."   

JUF allocated money from the Jewish Federation Disaster Relief Fund to NECHAMA, which coordinated relief efforts; IsraAID, for a clean water project and psychosocial support; the Jewish Community Center of Puerto Rico, and local synagogues for emergency assistance and case management. 

During our trip, the temperature hovered in the low 90s, and we got caught in a torrential downpour, which did not deter us from our work. 

The second floors of the homes we worked on were uninhabitable, most of them leaking water down to the first floor. So, while many residents had returned home from shelters, they were only able to live in a portion of their homes. Most of their belongings were destroyed in the hurricane. 

Our tasks included repairing roofs, mixing concrete to patch ceilings and fill cracks, cleaning out muck to prep the floors for sealing, and unloading and carrying truck-loads of plywood, tin, and 2x4s up a flight of stairs in preparation for rebuilding. 

Together, we accomplished tasks that no one of us alone could have achieved.  

Most touching was the gratitude expressed by each homeowner-sometimes in broken English, sometimes in Spanish. They would share with us their family photos, serve us cold drinks and lunch, and give us tours of their medicinal gardens. People who have little gave us much.  

And we volunteers-a group of 20 of us, ranging in age from 19-65, and largely unknown to one another before the trip-joined together in an experience of tikkun olam (repairing the world) that we will never forget. We fell into a rhythm, each of us doing what we were capable of, no one complaining about the work at hand.  

At night we met members of the Puerto Rican Jewish community and representatives from the relief organizations, plus we davened (prayed), making it possible for one fellow volunteer to observe her father's yartzheit.  

While pulling up linoleum on the second floor of one Puerto Rican home owned by a man named Jesus, I found a ruined family photo album. It was heartbreaking. Later, when we came downstairs for lunch, Jesus looked at us and said in his broken English, "You are warriors."

Indeed, we were warriors-warriors for tikkun olam.  

TOV is in the process of assessing the viability of future missions to Puerto Rico. If you're interested, reach out to YaelBrunwasser@juf.org. 

Renee Frishman Hochberg spent her career on account management and sales. She is a former YLD board member, Wexner Heritage Foundation program participant, and board member of B'Chavana, a spiritual community in the northern suburbs. 

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