Jose Caraballo, a retired firefighter from Yonkers, flew down to Puerto Rico on Sept. 12 to help care for his hospitalized father, thinking he would stay for “maybe a week or so.” But he heard people talking about an approaching hurricane, a monster named Maria.
Caraballo ended up riding out the storm when it struck on Sept. 20, and then thought he would never get back to the States in time for the wedding of his son Jason on Oct. 8.
But early on a Sunday morning, the week before his wedding, Jason called.
“Can you get to the airport in San Juan by 3 o’clock — today?” he asked.
Maybe, Caraballo said. The San Juan airport was 2½ hours away from Mayagüez, where he was staying, “on a good day,” and the condition of the roads post-Maria was uncertain.
“Why?” Caraballo asked.
His son’s explanation: a flight under the auspices of UJA-Federation of New York, which was bringing supplies to Puerto Rico that day to aid the island’s battered residents, was to return at 3 p.m. — and there was an empty seat on the private jet.
Caraballo packed a couple of suitcases, left within 45 minutes, reached the airport in time and attended his son’s wedding the next week.
That last-minute return to the United States, said Mark Medin, UJA-Federation’s executive vice president for financial resource development, was a small part of the humanitarian outreach to Puerto Rico that the philanthropy has conducted in the last six weeks.
UJA-Federation has opened fundraising mailboxes and helped collect supplies and coordinated volunteer missions following disasters in this country and overseas in past years. But this was the first time it did hands-on, on-site humanitarian work.
Using private jets loaned by UJA-Federation contributors, and a pair of cargo planes paid for by philanthropists, the charity by this week had sent more than a dozen planeloads of supplies to Puerto Rico — and two more to the Virgin Islands, which also suffered heavy damage at the hands of Maria.
The supplies were bought with the $1.5 million that UJA-Federation has collected for that purpose since September.
Medin said the charity is, as far as he knows, the only local Jewish federation in the U.S. to send its own planes with its own members to Puerto Rico since Maria hit. It worked in partnership with the Yonkers-based Afya Foundation medical supply recovery and distribution organization.
Recipients of UJA-Federation aid are typically members of the Jewish community; in Puerto Rico, whose small Jewish community sustained minimal damage in the hurricane, none of the people who received the emergency supplies were Jewish.
“We elevated our level of involvement,” Medin said. “We saw the need for the Jewish community to help.”
Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico created the perfect storm for UJA-Federation to play a role in. After hurricanes like Katrina or Harvey, “hundreds of volunteers” traveled to New Orleans to lend a rebuilding hand, and many to Houston, Medin said. Other overseas disaster sites were too far away for a New York group like UJA-Federation.
“This was a unique situation,” Medin explained. “It was in our own backyard. If we have the ability to help, that’s what we do.”
“UJA-Federation has the capacity and expertise to mobilize our community to respond to humanitarian crises,” said CEO Eric Goldstein.
The U.S. territory is easily reachable by plane, but it was weeks before the San Juan airport, which suffered damage in Maria, resumed anything resembling a normal schedule. Most commercial flights were cancelled.
Prominent UJA-Federation donors immediately offered use of their own jets, Medin said. On each mercy flight were prescription and over-the-counter medical supplies (especially insulin, for a country that has a high diabetes rate), water and water filtration tablets, canned and dried food, pet food, insect repellant, feminine hygiene products, first aid kits, batteries and work gloves.
In all, 12-15 tons of supplies.
On each flight, usually seating six-ten people, were the owner of the jet, several UJA-Federation leaders and sometimes a few children who came to work with Puerto Rican kids on art projects with donated art supplies as a form of distraction.
The passengers, outfitted in jeans and T-shirts, unloaded the boxes and duffle bags, loaded them onto a waiting van or truck, then unloaded them at Loiza, a poor city on the northeastern shore of Puerto Rico, about a half-hour’s ride away, which the Jewish community of San Juan had chosen as the recipient of UJA-Federation’s largesse.
In Puerto Rico the delegation met with Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, the Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in San Juan, and Jeff Berezdivin, president of the city’s JCC.
When the flights arrived, Medin and the other passengers saw the effects of Maria. Homes covered with tarp. Closed stores and banks. A country where electricity and running water has largely not been restored.
Some of the supplies were unloaded on a basketball court or an empty field or the side of the road; some went to a small nursing home where the elderly residents were sweltering in rooms without air conditioning.
The mayor of Loiza had alerted the residents that supplies were arriving.
“Hundreds of people stood in line,” each carrying a large plastic garbage bag in which to carry home what they received, Medin said.
“The Jewish community of New York has brought these supplies,” the UJA-Federation delegation told the mayor of Loiza. “The Jewish community of Puerto Rico is donating this to the people of Puerto Rico,” the visitors told the recipients.
Behind them was a large flag of Israel brought by the Jewish community of San Juan.
It was clear that this was a Jewish venture, Medin said. “All the residents were aware. It’s very important to strengthen the visibility of the Jewish community in Puerto Rico,” many of whose citizens now live in the Greater New York area.
“Everyone in Puerto Rico knows that the Jewish community is very active in the solidarity effort,” Diego Mendelbaum, director of the Jewish Community Center in San Juan, told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. He added, though, that “that was not the purpose” of the Jewish community’s work after Maria.
Thanks for the UJA-Federation delegation came in hugs, Medin said.
At the nursing home, the delegation members opened the water bottles for elderly who were sometimes too weak to do it themselves.
On each mission, the delegation spent a few hours working in Loiza — no restaurant meals, no touring, no shopping. Then, back to the U.S. “This wasn’t a tourist day. We didn’t spend a penny,” Medin said — they had a clear purpose: “UJA-Federation could literally save lives.”
David Kaplan, executive director of Nechama, a Minnesota-based Jewish disaster response organization, expressed great pride in UJA-Federation’s effort. “It’s extremely difficult down there [in Puerto Rico] to coordinate this type of work. They have found a unique solution to a unique problem,” Kaplan said. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for the Jewish community to connect with large [groups of] non-Jewish minorities.”
Other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations from the U.S., as well as IsraAid from Israel, arranged similar supply shipments to Puerto Rico.
Medin declined to comment on criticism — notably from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — that the U.S. government’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico has been inadequate and slow. “We’re focused on the work we have to do.”
The supplies brought to Puerto Rico by UJA-Federation were “very important,” said Danielle Butin, executive director of the Afya Foundation. Without them, “we would be looking at thousands of people in terrible shape,” she said.
Dr. Michelle Carlo, a pediatrician in Puerto Rico who coordinated the distribution of the donated medical supplies, was especially appreciative of the insulin and other supplies for treating diabetes.
Medin said UJA-Federation will continue to send supply-laden delegations to Puerto Rico “as long as there are donors willing to donate a plane.”
Jose Caraballo, who had arrived in Puerto Rico five days after hurricane Irma skirted the island, said the timing for the UJA-Federation flight to return him to the States was perfect.
During a speech he made at his son Jason’s wedding, he alluded to the serendipitous way he had come back to the States, but did not mention UJA-Federation or Afya directly, he said. By then, he said, “everyone already knew.”
Jose, who is Catholic, said he has offered his volunteer time to UJA-Federation. “I’m at your disposal,” he told Medin.