Hycliff Soler emerged from his home after Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico on September 20 to find a country he didn’t recognize.
“When the hurricane ended, we went outside and started to see the whole devastation,” said Soler. Whole neighborhoods were flooded, buildings were reduced to rubble. Trees blocked the roadways, and the island’s fragile electrical infrastructure collapsed.
“Then we said, ‘I think we will not be able to make the Israel trip.’”
Hycliff Soler and his wife Lunail Colón have run a Christian-centered dance school, Danzàle, in a suburb of the capital San Juan for the past 15 years. Their kids, Ian Cliff, 17, and Soleil, 12, are also dancers.
The family planned to visit Israel to perform with other musicians, dancers and singers from the Philippines, Brazil, the United States, Fiji, and elsewhere for the Feast of the Tabernacles, which began last Friday in Ein Gedi and ends on Wednesday in Jerusalem.
After Hurricane Maria, the Solers were conflicted. Their bags were packed and accommodations made for the three weeks they were to stay in Israel.
But Puerto Rico was experiencing devastation. At least 34 people died, and the governor estimated it will take at least $90 billion to recover.
Even more than three weeks after the hurricane, around 90% of the island is still without power. It is expected to take at least six months for the territory to regain electrical power.
The government has instructed all citizens not involved in emergency services to stay in their homes. But the family said the festival was too important to miss.
“We’re not supposed to be here because of the circumstances, but we know God put us out of our country for 21 days so when we get back we are able to help, to support…the people we love,” said Soler.
But the unpredictability of the power grid led to difficulties. As they were attempting to fly out of Puerto Rico, the airport had no service. All computers were down, and staff were forced to make reservations manually.
Despite this, the Solers managed to board a humanitarian flight to New York, which usually carries the sick and those in need of medical aid. Passengers are usually selected on a case-to-case basis.
“We say we were blessed from God,” said Colón.
“We think this situation is not just a tragedy, a catastrophe, that everything in life has its purpose,” said Soler. “Everything that happens in our life is a new opportunity to grow.”
Soler and Colón instruct and perform ballet, jazz, hip-hop, modern, contemporary and tap. Hycliff is a trained ballet dancer who has been performing since he was 11 years old.
He and his family have been coming to the Feast for several years. Hycliff said he was hooked after visiting in 2010.
“That moment I came, I [was] in love with Israel, the people of Israel. For me and my family, it’s like a commitment to come here year by year to bless this nation, to support this nation,” said Hycliff.
The connection between Jews and Christians is important to the Solers.
“We honor the Jewish person. As the Bible says, we need to pray for the peace of Israel,” Hycliff said.
The Solers have created a GoFundMe page to help rebuild their studio, whose roof was ripped off during the 150-mph wind gusts of the hurricane. Water entered through the ceiling and badly damaged the wooden dance floors. Their home was also damaged, though not as badly.
At the festival, the Solers are choreographing dance routines and performing, working with other musicians, singers, and dancers on pieces together. Hycliff said they and the other performers have been like a “family.”
“We are receiving a lot of encouragement, emotional support. We will get back charged, to help our family, to help our friends,” said an emotional Hycliff. “Sometimes when you are in a storm, God takes you to a place so you can be a column to other people, and when you get back you can encourage them and help them.”
And despite what they may come back to, even the youngest Solers said they are enjoying the experience.
“It’s an amazing experience because you meet people from every part of the Earth,” said Ian Cliff Soler.
The Solers are just a few of the thousands of Christians from around the world who visit Israel every year for the Feast of the Tabernacles during the Sukkot holiday. The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) is behind the week-long event, now in its 38th year.
“This is an incredible story of devotion to God…. This family wanted to represent Puerto Rico at the gathering for God at this biblical festival,” said David Parsons, ICEJ vice president and spokesman.
The festival was created as an act of solidarity with Israelis in 1980, when 13 diplomatic missions left Jerusalem for Tel Aviv in protest of the controversial “Jerusalem Law,” which many saw as an attempt to further Israel’s claims of annexation of East Jerusalem.
Its mission is to reaffirm “Christian support for a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty,” according to the ICEJ. The event is the largest of its kind for Christian tourists in Israel.
“There is a unique dynamic that only happens at Sukkot,” said Parsons. “The Jewish people are commanded to have joy and welcome the nations [during Sukkot]. We always get a very warm welcome at the Feast of Tabernacles.”
The Soler family will perform at the Pais Arena on Tuesday. A Jerusalem March will also take place Tuesday afternoon and a Wednesday vigil at the Tower of David will wrap up the events.