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Sosua

Sosua

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Sosua is a small and pretty coastal resort in the north of the Dominican Republic. It is not very famous; most people have never heard of it. For some, however, it was their only hope of survival and a safe haven from Nazi Germany. In fact, while every other country in the world, including the United States, closed its borders on the Jewish refugees, Rafael Trujillo, the totalitarian ruler of the Dominican at the time, invited 100,000 Jews to come to his island. His motives may have been politically driven--he wanted a "whiter" population and a more economically successful and prosperous country--but he offered life and even food and work to concentration-camp-bound Jews. An offer they couldn't refuse, whatever the ulterior motives.

In the end only one thousand visas were issued, and unfortunately only 650 Jews actually made it to the Island. Trujillo gave them land to cultivate and animals to raise. With G-d's help their farms succeeded and flourished, many growing into large productive meat and fruit businesses. This summer, I had the privilege of visiting this slowly fading community, as part of Chabad's summer outreach program to small and isolated Jewish communities.

The synagogue built by the Jews who escaped Nazi Europe and settled in Sosua, Dominican Republic
The synagogue built by the Jews who escaped Nazi Europe and settled in Sosua, Dominican Republic
A museum recently built by the Jews of Sosua
A museum recently built by the Jews of Sosua

It was a hot Monday afternoon and I was sitting with Baila, age 70, from a small shtetle in Austria. We were conversing in Yiddish. Before the war, her hometown was home to some 10,000 Jews. Her parents were Chassidim, her father a shochet. "He wouldn't let anyone--not a single traveler, beggar or vagabond--stay at shul alone on Friday night; he invited them all home."

Young Baila would often complain about the smell and appearance of some of the visitors. But her father would say: "These are our brothers and sisters, we accept them and help them however they are."

Tears came to my eyes when thinking of all that Baila lost: her shtetle, her beautiful Jewish upbringing and lovely Jewish home; her parents and her eight younger siblings, who all perished in the Nazi concentration camps.

At a young age she arrived at Sosua. Together with her Jewish brethren, Baila became a farmer. They built a small shul, but Jewish learning and observance was scarce. Baila's daughter received even less of an education, and unfortunately married out of the faith. Baila told me how much she cried the day her daughter told her she would be marrying a local boy. She wanted me to meet her granddaughter, Lima, which I did. I spoke to the five-year-old girl about Judaism and I gave her a children's siddur and a mezuzah for her room. I encouraged Lima's mother to light the Shabbat candles with her every Friday night and give her some Jewish education. Baila was shedding tears, I assume of joy, as we chatted.

Later that evening I had a meeting in Puerto Plata, a city 20 miles west of Sosua, with a Jewish population of about 3. I visited a family from New Jersey. The mother was a nice friendly Jewish lady, Paula, and the father a pleasant Dominican; they had met at high school back in the States and married. They had lived most of their married life together in New Jersey, where Debra, their oldest daughter has been in touch with her Judaism. She is very involved, and is interested in studying more. She goes to the local shul every Shabbat and even brings her family along. She also keeps kosher. Her mother isn't ecstatic about it, but accepts it.

I remarked to her mother how thankful and reassured she must be, knowing that on Friday nights her daughter was hanging out at the shul, with nice modest Jewish girls of her age, and not in some disco, drinking the night away with strangers. Of course she silently agreed.

As I returned to my hotel room that night, my thoughts about the day's meeting with these two families tumbled about in my head. I wondered if Paula's mother back in New Jersey cried, the way Baila had, when she was informed that her daughter would be marrying a Dominican non-Jew. I also thought about Baila's tears of joy as she watched her beloved granddaughter kiss the mezuzah, and wondered if Paula's mother similarly rejoiced in the knowledge that her oldest granddaughter is a proud and educated Jew.

I was thinking of the two mothers, one that had no opportunity to offer her child Judaism, and one that was apprehensive about her child's rediscovery of what she herself had turned her back on. And I thought about what an amazing and ironic world we live in today, which has dispersed us and disconnected so many of us from our heritage, yet also offers us the opportunity to practice Judaism openly wherever and whenever we choose to.

I was happy to realize that just like young Debra, Lima was now somewhat more Jewishly educated than her mother.

I understood how education is the future of our people, and I thanked G-d that I had the opportunity to partake in spreading its message.

I encourage everyone to do his or her part in showing a fellow Jew how precious and important our heritage is. Echoing the words of Baila's father (may G-d avenge his blood), "These are your brothers and sisters; we must help them however they are."

Rabbi Mendel Cohen serves as director to Chabad of Shoredich, and Rabbi at The Saatchi Synagogue, St Johns Wood, London.
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Discussion (11)
February 8, 2011
Sosua
I went there to scuba dive this past weekend and noticed the shul next door to Casa Marina. A child of a survivor, I quickly hired a guide and found Benny Katz, one of the only remaining Jews left. He told me Baila has Alzheimers now. Long story short, I ended up davening Kabalat Shabbat at Benny's makeshift shul above his store, a truly magnificent and inspiring experience. His wife is not Jewish, but a convert and probably knows more than Benny. After Kiddush, we hugged each other and I told him how certain I was that those original 30 familiies who remained in Sosua, now gone, are now looking down with comfort at what he continues to do....
Ethan Schaff
Boston, MA
November 27, 2006
How strange that I found your moving article on a search for property in the Dominican Republic....I chose Sosua because of the reasonable prices.
Allegra Shaw
London, England
October 2, 2005
Keep those unbelievable articles coming... you're doing a great job!
d.leah
October 2, 2005
Some impartial comments.
I am a non Jew, who knows a great deal about Judaism and Jewish History. If I had lived in a WW2 occupied country, Poland perhaps, I almost certainly would have been a rightous gentile. I am English and like most English people I have that "Its only fair" and "Thats not fair-so don't do it " English attitude about me.

So your report about Baila, who went as a child to another country to escape persecution annoyed me, insofar as it dwelt on someone crying bitterly because her daughter had married a non-Jew.

50 years ago I fell in love on first sight with a beautiful Jewish girl who I still carry a torch for, all her family liked me, her mother liked me, but the Jewish religion meant I was a taboo. We stopped seeing each other and she married a Jewish husband. Today her family wish she had'nt. It ruined her life and you must accept that sometimes a Jewish husband can / cannot be perfect and a good goy does have a lot to be said him /for her. Email if you wish. Thankyou.
Anonymous
Moortown, England LS17 5PB
September 24, 2005
Thank you mendel. This is very well written. Every single shliach can relate to this.
Yossi G.
September 23, 2005
Being "Debra", I really enjoyed reading this article. I'm happy to say that I still am continuing my Jewish education at Stern College in New York. Education is the key and we all have to look out for each other and help educate others. Have a Good Shabbos!!
Philippa Hernandez
chabadpuertorico.com
September 21, 2005
Dominican Republic
Some forty years ago, I met the "Jewish Deputy" to the Dominican legislature. He related that when they were buiding the Synagogue in Santo Domingo, Yoseph Caro, dean of the Dominican school of architecture, appeared and asserted that he should be the one to design the building. His family claimed descent from the author of the Shulchan Aruch, although they had long ago assimilated.

It is also quite possible that a president of the country was a Sephardic Jew.
Yaakov M. Hammer
Washington, DC
September 20, 2005
Keep up the good work.
I am very impressed with your article. Keep it up.
Berel L
September 19, 2005
Another inspired shliach
Very well written account of what all us shluchim are very familiar with, Thank you chabad.org for a wonderful site, that every Jew can be proud of!
Moish
September 18, 2005
Beautifuly said
A beautiful blend of an historical story and an important lesson for our people, thank you for the warm words of inspiration.
Sammy
NC
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