When Rabbi Mendel and Rochie Zarchi opened the first Chabad-Lubavitch center in the Caribbean, they could barely get the necessary quorum for public prayer services. The second week after their arrival in S. Juan, Puerto Rico, a visiting Jewish couple in town for a business conference called up to ask if they could come for Shabbat.

Mendel Zarchi, whose previous home was in Brooklyn, N.Y., didn’t know what the couple was expecting and warned them that he himself was new and couldn’t guarantee a big crowd for the holy day. He couldn’t even guarantee the 10 men known as a minyan. The couple’s response put things into perspective.

“What he said really touched me,” recalled Zarchi, who has called Puerto Rico home since 1999. “He told me that for them, just to be in a Jewish environment so far from home was comforting. It really reminded us of why we came.”

Historically a haven for persecuted Jews who had to hide their identities in the Old World, the Caribbean and its islands have always seemed a world apart, even mystical, to Jewish communities in the United States. Jews in such locales as Curacao and Aruba, Cuba and the Dominican spoke different languages and dialects – often different from each other – and maintained different customs, such as flooring their synagogues with sand.

But for many, feelings of isolations shared between communities on the islands and the continent began to break down in the 1960s, when the then-fledgling summer visitation program of Chabad-Lubavitch’s educational arm sent the first rabbinical students to serve Jews throughout the Caribbean. Three decades later, a younger Zarchi’s interest in moving there happened to coincide with increasing requests by S. Juan’s resident Jews, business travelers and tourists asking Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of the Chabad-Lubavitch educational arm, to establish a Chabad House in Puerto Rico.

And while the Zarchis started out small, their first holiday event – a Purim party for the community – drew more than 75 people. Since then, things have continued to grow.

Deep Explorations

From their first visit to the island to find a location for their Chabad House, the Zarchis have received support from individuals who had written to Kotlarsky. And almost immediately after their arrival, they began fielding calls from Jews not only living in the American protectorate, but throughout the region.

“Our focus is Puerto Rico, but there has always been an interest in the Caribbean as a whole, and that has intensified as we’ve become more acquainted with the communities,” said Zarchi. “People have come here for Shabbat from S. Thomas, the Netherlands Antilles, the Dominican Republic, all over. Some will come in the middle of the week to stay for a few days and go to classes, just to experience being in a Jewish environment.”

As further evidence, Zarchi pointed to a kosher food service the Chabad House runs that provides shipments to anyone throughout the region in need.

For American medical student Seth Wenig, who is studying at a university in Nevis, the Chabad House in S. Juan has truly become a home away from home.

“I can’t even express my appreciation for them and everything they do,” said Wenig. “It was a pleasure spending Rosh Hashanah with them this year. Afterwards, they even asked someone to drive me around S. Juan so I could take care of a few things before returning to school. They’re wonderful people.”

The requests for Shabbat gatherings, classes, and other programming coming from throughout the Caribbean prompted the Zarchis to invite another emissary couple to open up a Chabad House in S. Thomas. Rabbi Asher and Henya Federman arrived from New York in 2005 with an extensive background in youth programming and education. Their skills have been especially welcomed in a historical Jewish community that values its Jewish identity.

Today, educational activities at the Federmans’ Chabad House draw 30 to 50 regular students. During peak tourist season, those numbers swell. The couple attributes the success to the island’s laid-back atmosphere.

“People coming here on vacation encounter a place where everything is relaxed, where everyone is more open,” related Asher Federman. “That openness allows them to experience Judaism on a deeper level.”

Last winter, the Federmans opened the Virgin Islands Jewish Welcome Center, naming it after slain Mumbai-based Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries Rabbi Gavriel and Rivky Holtzberg. The center serves kosher snacks and hosts an Internet cafe, themed displays, a children’s corner featuring arts and crafts and other activities, and weekday prayer services, all in close proximity to the island’s tourism hotspots. They hope to welcome another emissary couple next year to help them direct the center.

Also in 2008, the Caribbean’s third island Chabad House – directed by Rabbi Shimon and Michal Pelman – opened in the Dominican Republic. This year, Jews on the island of S. Martin were joined by Rabbi Moishe and Sara Chanowitz who flew down from the United States to lead services and classes over the High Holiday season.

One of the side effects of the increasing presence of Chabad Houses in the Caribbean is tour companies’ tweaking of their itineraries to reflect increased Jewish tourism, and their offering kosher food and prayer services on cruises and at local hotels.

“Over the last four years, we’ve developed a beautiful relationship with people, and we’ve seen the community come together,” said Henya Federman. “And there is more support for Jewish life here, even at the supermarket, which offers a much larger variety of kosher foods. In every way, it is just more comfortable to be Jewish here.”

Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, director of Chabad of Puerto Rico, speaks at a Chanukah event in 2006.
Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, director of Chabad of Puerto Rico, speaks at a Chanukah event in 2006.

A backbone of the efforts continues to be the summer visitation program that first brought rabbinical students to the Caribbean. Each year, the Zarchis and the New York-based Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, Chabad-Lubavitch’s educational arm, coordinate visits to Jews living everywhere from the ABC Islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaco, to lesser-known destinations.

Bentzion Shemtov, who spent most of his summer visiting Jews in the Netherlands Antilles together with fellow student Sholom Katz, recalled that the locals were thrilled to see that the “men in black” had returned.

“When we came, they had their questions prepared, a list of books they wanted to buy, and it was like they had been waiting all year for this,” remarked Shemtov. “Another family we went to bought every children’s book we had, and sat talking to us for hours. An elderly man was very emotional when we left, and he’s been in touch with us since.”

This past summer, rabbinical students visited a total of 12 Caribbean locations, supplementing personal trips that Mendel Zarchi makes several times a year.

“In a place like Aruba, the small stories are the big stories,” said Shemtov. “Being able to see a fellow Jew, that’s a big story. It is something they appreciate.”