Summer has come early to Puerto Rico, and in the backdrop of such balmy weather, a local businessman named Chaim found himself sitting recently around a table laden with kosher food, together with a dozen black-hatted, bearded rabbis. It was a far cry from when he first landed on the U.S. territory for business back in the winter of 1990.
“At that time, I was walking around the streets of Puerto Rico wearing a kipah or other head covering. Seeing that I was Jewish, people would approach me with questions, and I felt I needed a place to refer them to,” says the New Jersey native, who divides his time between his Teaneck home and his Puerto Rican business interests. “When I saw that I was going to be invested here in the long term, I recognized that this was a place ripe for a permanent Chabad presence.”
As the “founder” of the first Chabad center in the Caribbean and a key force behind its growth, Chaim—who requested that his full name not be published—was invited to be the lead speaker at the recent regional conference of Chabad rabbis earlier this month, which was attended by Chabad rabbis serving the Caribbean Islands, as well as two from Mexico (Cancun and Playa del Carmen) and senior Chabad officials from New York.
The guest speakers were Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, and Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi, Mashpia of the Central Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch – 770 in Brooklyn, NY,
60 YEARS IN THE WORKS
Chabad’s involvement in the Caribbean dates back nearly 60 years to 1957.
At the time, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, now the chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, and the late Rabbi Leibel Raskin, who went on to serve as a Shliach in Morocco, were sent by the Rebbe to travel from island to island, bringing Torah literature and a personal connection from the outside Jewish community to Jewish people in Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.
Throughout the years, young “Roving Rabbis” also hopped from island to Island—even making clandestine visits to Cuba. In 1999, Rabbi Mendel and Rochie Zarchi would be the first Chabad couple to move full-time to serve local Jewish residents and the numerous tourists who flock year-round to the Caribbean’s emerald seas and pristine sands.
Beyond Puerto Rico, Rabbi Zarchi quickly became the point person for Judaism in the Caribbean, as communities turned to him to facilitate certain services, as well as entreat the presence of “Roving Rabbis” sent from the Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. In time, he worked with headquarters and donors to bring permanent Chabad couples to a growing number of islands.
‘A BEAUTIFUL PLACE’
Eleven Chabad couples now call the Caribbean home—and more are on their way.
Joining the Zarchis, Rabbi Asher and Henya Federman moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2005. They were followed by Rabbi Shimon and Michal Pelman, who moved to the Dominican Republic in 2008. The following year, Rabbi Moshe and Simcha Nemni founded Chabad-Lubavitch of Martinique, and Rabbi Moishe and Sara Chanowitz settled in St. Maarten.
Chabad of Puerto Rico opened a satellite branch in Old San Juan under the directorship of Rabbi Levi and Leah Stein in 2011. In 2013, Rabbi Berel and Rikal Pewzner moved to Grand Cayman Island; Rabbi Boruch and Chaya Rozmarin set up a Chabad on Campus for Jewish medical students in Grenada; and Rabbi Ahron and Chaya Blasberg made Aruba their home in the very end of December, catching the last few weeks of the major tourist season. Also in the area are Rabbi Mendel and Rochel Druk of Cancun and Rabbi Mendel and Chaya Goldberg of Playa Del Carmen.
“We heard that the folks with timeshares were still on the island, and we hopped on a plane,” says Rabbi Blasberg, who was born in Israel and is married to a native of Leeds, England. “It’s really a beautiful place to live. People have been so welcoming to us. On Passover, we had 70 people at our seder the first night, and the next night we had 30 guests—almost all locals.”
Blasberg is quick to point out that the warm reception is largely due to the personal connections and goodwill fostered by the young rabbis who have been visiting the island for decades. In fact, the Jewish prime minister of the Dutch state, Mike Eman, has had a longstanding relationship with these Chassidic men, from whom he even received his own pair of tefillin.
While Chabad on Aruba is still in its infancy, the Chabad centers in some of the other islands have grown beyond anyone’s expectation. Both Puerto Rico and St. Thomas boast daily prayer services, kosher catering facilities and satellite welcome centers near cruise terminals. They are also in the midst of constructing spacious new centers that will host mikvahs and other amenities.
“Having a daily minyan was one of our early priorities,” says Chaim, who notes that he never missed a day of Kaddish during the respective years of mourning for both of his parents, thanks to the consistent services at Chabad of Puerto Rico. “It’s just beautiful to see people—some of whom may have become distanced from Judaism at one point or another, and others who never put on tefillin in their lives—coming every day to Chabad to pray, and whose lives were changed.”
Eighty miles of blue sea to the east, Rabbi Federman says he sees similar dynamics.
“There was a family whose child recently celebrated a birthday, and they wanted our children to be able to come to the party,” he recalls. “So they had the whole party catered by our kosher food service. There has been an enhancement of Jewish awareness and observance that is just amazing to see.”
Federman explains that the center currently being built, which is being constructed with seed money supplied by the late philanthropist Sami Rohr family on a hilltop with a sweeping panoramic view of the ocean, will help accommodate the crowd, in addition to creating a larger home for Chabad’s activities and programs. At the same time, he says that he and his family will be living on the one-acre campus so that it retains the homey atmosphere that attracted people in the first place.
Like the St. Thomas Chabad center, the 11,000-square-foot facility currently being built in Puerto Rico is a tribute to the generosity of the Rohr family and many local donors, including Saul Scherl, a developer whose firm has taken responsibly for the construction and who is co-chairing the project with Chaim.
The network of Chabad centers and rabbis has broadly expanded the vacation options for Jews looking to unwind without relaxing their religious observances. The availability of kosher food, prayer services, Torah classes—and now even mikvahs—provides unprecedented opportunity for Jews to take a vacation and uphold their religious standards.
Reflecting on the regional transformations that have snowballed as a result of his initial phone call and support, Chaim helps paint a larger picture.
“The rabbis themselves may not realize what an imprint they have on people—how many lives have been changed as a result of their efforts,” he says. “But I’ve seen firsthand what amazing relationships they have established, and how Jewish life and awareness have exploded as a result.”