Editorial: Monday mix on aiding Puerto Rico; recovery center; Smith money

  • Hampshire County House of Correction inmate Dan McNair, right, presents the Rev. Michael McSherry, pastor of Edwards Church in Northampton, with a plaque made by inmates during a celebration of the first anniversary for the Northampton Recovery Center on Oct. 25.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 10/29/2017 10:27:05 PM

Two religious congregations that share space in Florence were remarkably resourceful in teaming up on a humanitarian mission to aid hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

After the Florence Congregational Church and Beit Ahavah Synagogue raised $10,500 to buy 202 water filters, the challenge was getting them to the island. The solution involved an overnight drive to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City where the purifiers were delivered to a JetBlue pilot who turned them over to a temple administrator in San Juan — after he proved his identity by reciting a New Testament verse.

It all worked out, say leaders of the congregations that for 20 years have used the same building at 130 Pine St. in Florence. “Everyone is high from the euphoria of doing this,” says Riqi Kosovske, the rabbi at Beit Ahavah. “Just the fact that we could get a plane there and have the water filters handed off is an amazing thing.”

The filters were the idea of Irv Gammon, pastor of the Congregational Church, who saw a news report showing Puerto Rican children drinking brown, murky water from a river after Hurricane Maria. The LifeStraw Family Water Purifiers can filter up to 18,000 liters of water, remove 99 percent of bacteria and viruses and provide clean water to a family of four for a year.

However, LifeStraw does not ship directly to Puerto Rico, so members of the congregations turned to their own network. One woman knows a JetBlue pilot, Ophneil Kellman, who shifted his schedule so he could fly from New York City to San Juan on Oct. 18. Still, he needed the filters to be at the airport by 5:30 that morning — in five bags or fewer, each weighing no more than 50 pounds, so they could be stowed on the plane as cargo.

The filters arrived Oct. 17 in Florence and after a last-minute trip to Walmart to buy five large bags, they were packed and sent on their way after midnight to the airport.

Kosovske arranged for an administrator of Temple Beth Shalom in San Juan, Zevio Schnitzer, to meet Kellman and recite this verse, Philippians 4:19: “But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.”

The filters are being used by families who attend Schnitzer’s temple as well as people in more remote areas. Other filters were given to a soup kitchen.

“It’s interesting how a Jewish group with their theology and a Christian group with their own theology can find a common ground,” Gammon says. “That common ground is human need.”

That’s a powerful reason to set aside differences and put compassion in action.

* * *

Congratulations to the Northampton Recovery Center for celebrating its first anniversary last week with a gathering at the Edwards Church in Northampton where dozens of people heard testimonials from Hampshire County House of Correction inmates.

Among them was Torin Traynor, a recovering heroin addict and former U.S. Marine, who delivered this message: “We come here so we can be ourselves and open up about our problems and look for help. It’s important we feel part of the community and not behind walls. We want to be around normal people and feel welcome.”

The peer-driven drug abuse support group is run by the Northwestern district attorney’s office, which partners with the county jail to allow inmates serving time for drug-related charges, and who are in recovery, to spend time at the center. It offers Alcoholics Anonymous-style meetings, educational speakers, wellness activities such as yoga, and meals three days a week.

“It’s great because this a judgment-free zone,” says Betsy Allen, a peer volunteer. That’s the kind of safe space needed to help the ease the inmates’ transition back to the community.

​​​​* * *

The Smith College board of trustees took steps in the right direction this month by voting to increase from $9.5 million to $30 million its impact investments — “those intended to generate measurable social and environmental change alongside a financial return” — over an unspecified period of time, and to avoid any future direct holdings in coal.

However, the decision falls short of the demand by student, faculty and alumnae activists for fully divesting the college’s $1.8 billion endowment from fossil fuel holdings.

We hope that Smith eventually achieves that goal, following the lead of Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

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