Water is Life: How Our Interfaith Work is Ensuring Clean Water in Puerto Rico
Mayyim hem Chayim (Waters, they are life) read the Hebrew poster in my dorm room at Brandeis decades ago. Fast forward to a little more than a month ago, when those words echoed in my head as I sat in my temple office trying to write the Yom Kippur sermon I would deliver to my small congregation, Beit Ahavah - the Reform Synagogue of Greater Northampton. I cried as I watched a news video of a grandmother in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. She had little drinking water and only saltine crackers for her grandchildren.
Downstairs, in the office of Florence Congregational Church (where my synagogue is housed), my minister-friend Pastor Irv Gammon also was watching the news. A hiker, he knew about water filters and how they could help ensure clean drinking water for the people of Puerto Rico. He called up to me and within moments a plan was hatched. There was an urgent need and we would help meet it with a “mission-tzedakah” to send LifeStraw Water Filters to Puerto Rico. Before long, Pastor Irv had arranged a discount on the filters from the LifeStraw company and we were on our way.
On erev Yom Kippur, during the Kol Nidre sermon, I appealed to our congregation for funds to help cover the costs. I invited Pastor Irv to the bimah during my sermon, which was entitled “Water is Life.” Members of the congregation were overwhelmed to see us so energized, empowered, and galvanized at the prospect of making a difference together.
During the second week in October, just before leaving town for his daughter’s wedding, and while I was in the midst of planning my son's upcoming bar mitzvah, Pastor Irv ordered 200 filters to be delivered to the church the following Tuesday. With funds from our own communities and others pouring in, by Tuesday evening, October 17, temple and church volunteers gathered to pack the water filters, filling them with blessings for safe transport. Indeed, their transport is perhaps the most miraculous part of this story, in part because the complex details had come together only days before.
On Sunday, October 15, I heard from leaders at Temple Beth Shalom in San Juan, Puerto Rico, expressing their appreciation for our healing efforts, and stressing how badly the water filters were needed. With Pastor Irv away, I was singlehandedly juggling leads and coordinating logistics to get the water filters to the island.
The next evening, I learned that, thanks to her incredible perseverance, Robin Warner, a Beit Ahavah member and Tot Shabbat mom, had pursued a connection with a JetBlue pilot, Ophneal Kellman. A true humanitarian, Ophneal had arranged his schedule so that he could fly the large shipment of water filters to Puerto Rico early on Wednesday morning. Robin’s husband, Paul, graciously agreed to drive most of Tuesday night to get them from western Massachusetts to the airport in New York City in time for the flight. Meanwhile, there were myriad restrictions on the size and shape of the packaging the airline would allow, and I scurried around town until midnight trying to find the right size duffel bags.
I'm in awe of the people from both our communities who came together on Tuesday night – filled with incredible energy, love, courage, and hope to prepare and stuff duffel bags. As if on cue, Pastor Irv and his wife, Brenda, stopped in on their way back from the wedding at just the right moment to see his vision of sending water filters to Puerto Rico come to fruition. Thanks to the incredible perseverance and patience of our volunteers, by the end of the evening, 18 (truly life-saving) duffel bags filled with water filters had been packed into bags of 15 cubic feet, each weighing no more than 50 pounds (to conform to the airline’s weight restrictions) and loaded into Paul Warner’s car for the all-night drive to the airport. With that feat behind us, we gathered in a circle and, holding hands, shared some of the words and prayers in our hearts: gratitude, faith, love, hope, exuberance, and awe. I stayed up all night awaiting news via texts from the pilot, and was thrilled when he let me know that the plane – with all our filters on board – was pushing back from the gate.
On Wednesday, we received word that earlier that day, Ophneal had successfully rendezvoused with Zevio Schnitzer, Temple Beth Shalom’s administrator in the baggage claim area of the San Juan airport so that the pilot could personally hand over the large duffel bags containing 270 pounds of water filters for those in need.
I received this email from Zevio two days later when he was able to get online for a moment:
The filters arrived safely! I took one home to test it out, and on Shabbat will be demonstrating how it works and how to clean it, and then will give one to each family. We will also distribute some to families and community-run soup kitchens and to families who live near our temple. The rest will be given to volunteer brigades that are working nonstop to deliver supplies to the center of the island where the devastation was greatest.
After that Shabbat, we received pictures from Zevio demonstrating how to use the filters to the congregants, many of whom had traveled more than two hours in difficult conditions to get to the temple.
To date we have raised nearly $29,000 – an astounding amount for our small community – and that figure continues to grow. Together with the Florence Congregational Church, we are multiplying our efforts, aiming to send 1,000 family-size water filters to Puerto Rico. We’re working on the second shipment of 200 filters now, and by doing what’s needed, we’re learning to fundraise and to package and ship filters – to get them as quickly as possible into the hands of those who need them.
To contribute to “Water is Life: LifeStraw Family Water Filters for Puerto Rico,” make checks payable to Florence Congregational Church (write “water filters” on the memo line) and mail to 130 Pine Street, Florence, MA 01062. Online donations can be directed to Temple Beth Shalom’s Hurricane Maria Recovery Fund or to the Jewish Federation of North America’s 2017 Hurricane Relief Fund. For information about donating specific, urgently needed items, contact Rabbi Norman Patz or Zevio Schnitzer.