As volunteers worked feverishly to tape the exposed windows of San Juan’s Temple Beth Shalom with plastic film and carry the synagogue’s Torah scrolls to a secure place, the congregation’s visiting rabbi prayed for a New Year 5778 miracle that would spare Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria.
The Category 5 storm, with wind speeds of 160 mph, has already left widespread destruction on the nearby islands of Guadeloupe and Dominica. As it bears down on Puerto Rico — home to the largest Jewish community in the Caribbean — the island’s three synagogues have canceled Rosh Hashanah services and urged their members not to venture outside.
“We were supposed to have services Wednesday night. That’s not happening,” said Yadhira Ramírez Toro, who heads the ritual committee at Temple Beth Shalom, a Reform congregation that next month had planned to celebrate its 50th anniversary with a gala dinner and concert. “Nobody’s supposed to leave their houses. Right now we’re just on standby.”
The National Weather Service calls Maria “potentially catastrophic” and warns that the storm could dump up to 25 inches of rain on this US territory, which is still reeling from last week’s Hurricane Irma and burdened with an electrical infrastructure weakened by the island’s $70 billion debt. The NWS says Maria could destroy even well-built structures, leaving some locations “uninhabitable for weeks or months.”
Virtually all of Puerto Rico’s 2,000 or so Jews live in San Juan and its environs.
Sha’are Zedek, which also houses the Jewish Community Center of Puerto Rico, is the island’s largest congregation. Some 150 families, mostly of Cuban origin, belong to the Conservative shul and nearly all of them come for Rosh Hashanah — but not this year.
“The eye of this super-hurricane will pass directly over San Juan,” said Diego Mandelbaum, who’s led religious services at Sha’are Zedek for the last 12 years. “In 2005, we missed the first night of Rosh Hashanah due to a tropical storm, but that was nothing compared to this monster. This is a situation that speaks for itself. This isn’t even a decision, it’s an impossibility.”
It’s doubtful that Sha’are Zedek will have Thursday morning services either, said Mandelbaum.
“Most likely, people will not be able to get out of their houses. There will be trees and power lines down. It will be very dangerous or just impossible to drive in the streets,” Mandelbaum said.
For the last 10 years, Rabbi Norman Patz of Cedar Grove, New Jersey, has conducted High Holiday services at Temple Beth Shalom. Some 100 people were expected to show up this year, but because of the approaching storm, Patz has had to improvise.
“We planned to broadcast a reading of the service via Periscope, but we’re not sure that’ll work,” said Patz, rabbi emeritus at Temple Sholom of West Essex. “So instead, I have composed a prayer for danger as the hurricane approaches, using some traditional sources and a prayer that came from the Reform Judaism website.”
In what may be the first-ever Jewish New Year sermon that mentions a specific storm, Patz pleads with the Almighty: “What chaos will blow with the wind? What destruction will strike? Who will suffer? Who will stay secure? God of mystery and awe, grant us all safety as Hurricane Maria engulfs our homes and our lives. Protect us, shield us, guard us, grant to all of us who are in the path of this mighty storm peace of mind and physical safety, and peace of mind to all who are concerned about our well-being.”
In the San Juan oceanfront suburb of Isla Verde — home to both Puerto Rico’s main international airport and its Chabad house — Rabbi Mendel Zarchi said he’s opened up his brand-new shul to people needing shelter.
“This is a very anxious time. It’s a Category 5 storm and most people have never experienced a direct hit like that,” said Zarchi, who has lived in Puerto Rico for 19 years.
He said the two-story building, located only a block from the sea, is nevertheless built to new hurricane-resistant federal standards.
“It’s a two-floor facility of 12,000 square feet with hurricane-resistant windows,” he said. “The Torah scrolls are housed in a concrete ark wall, but those walls are projected to the outside, so we’ve moved them to an interior room that is not exposed, in case of any leaks. We also have water for those that can’t make it to the stores.”
Zarchi said that “as soon as it’s safe for people to venture out,” Chabad will be there to help Jews and non-Jews in any way possible.
“It’s a slow-moving storm and will be pounding the island for 12 to 18 hours at least,” said Zarchi. “Our facility has a backup generator, we have food supplies and we’ll do everything we can to share our resources with the community. May God give us strength and may we be spared the full wrath of Maria.”