Warm balmy winds won’t be the only thing wafting across the Caribbean this High Holiday season, with 10 island communities – including S. Thomas, Grenada, and the Bahamas – celebrating the Jewish New Year with deeply moving prayer services, delicious kosher food and plenty of invigorating and uplifting spirit.

While Puerto Rico, S. Thomas, S. Maarten, Martinique and the Dominican Republic boast permanent year-round Chabad-Lubavitch centers at which meals and services will take place, Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical students are being dispatched to Dominica, Grenada, Grand Cayman Island, Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas to lead services and oversee all meals planned for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

(To locate High Holiday services and associated programs in your area, click here to access a worldwide directory of events maintained by the Judaism website Chabad.org. For more information about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, including inspiring videos and informative guides, click here.)

Most of the small Jewish population in Grenada and Dominica comprises students studying at the islands’ medical and veterinary schools. According to Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, director of Chabad of Puerto Rico and Chabad of the Caribbean, rabbinical visits ensure that these students remain connected to a Jewish infrastructure.

“It’s a privilege and an obligation to respond to the calling,” Zarchi said of those rabbinical students who will spend the High Holidays serving such isolated communities. “When you know that there’s a need, it’s impossible to say no.”

Sponsoring these visits requires a tremendous amount of support in the way of financial assistance and logistical planning, much of which is made possible through the dedicated work of Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Iynonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, and his New York staff.

“It’s a joint effort,” said Zarchi, who lists prayer books and imported kosher meat as two main expenses. “We’re all working together and making it happen. The central office is helping us with volunteers and devoting their time. This in an expensive undertaking and we are grateful to everyone who is helping to make it happen. This is what it takes to build Jewish lives.”

Chabad of Puerto Rico taught children how to make their own ram’s horns.
Chabad of Puerto Rico taught children how to make their own ram’s horns.

Island Flavor

For Frances Kaminski, a 27-year-old veterinary student at Grenada’s S. George University, having a rabbi on hand to guide the Jewish students in High Holiday prayer and celebration is a welcome change from the isolation felt during the rest of the year.

“With the stress of med school and vet school and people constantly studying, there’s not much Jewish observance here on the island,” explained Kaminski, who hails from Westchester, N.Y., and earned her undergraduate degree from Emory University. “There are no Jewish services here on a weekly basis. There are occasional Shabbat dinners, but I can count on one hand the number of students that are strictly kosher.”

Kaminski estimated that between 60 and 80 students attended last year’s High Holiday services, and expects a similar turnout this year.

“Last year Rabbi Zarchi sent me two amazing rabbis,” she said. “I’m not sure who we’re going to get this year – they’re still trying to figure that out – but I trust Rabbi Zarchi will send us someone amazing.”

David Lurie, a medical student at Ross University School of Medicine in Roseau, Commonwealth of Dominica, admits that it can be difficult “to keep a Jewish life going” on the West Indies island more famous for its palm trees and lush crystalline waters than its tiny Jewish community. (Dominica’s total population is 70,000.)

“We have about 10 regulars at Friday night services,” said Lurie, co-president of the school’s Jewish Student Association. “A few of the professors are Jewish and maybe two of the full-time island residents, and we try to stay connected. But we can’t really observe Judaism in the manner we would like.”

Lurie considers Chabad’s now-yearly presence in Dominica an opportunity for Jewish students to “re-energize ourselves.”

“When the rabbis come here we are able to remind ourselves of who we are,” said Lurie. “We are able to have a bit more Jewish spirit.”

High Holiday gatherings at S. Maarten’s Chabad Jewish Center, which opened its doors in 2010 provide a unique opportunity for the estimated 300 full-time Jewish residents and constant influx of Jewish tourists to meld traditional Jewish customs with festive Caribbean flavor.

“Last year we had about 100 people who came for the High Holidays and we’re definitely looking forward to welcoming everybody this year,” said Sara Chanowitz, co-director of Chabad of S. Maarten, who’s celebrating her second Rosh Hashanah on the island. “As time progresses and we get to meet more people and more people find out about us, it becomes even more exciting to be here.”

Events at the S. Maarten Chabad – located on the Dutch side of the island – will include prayer services, a big communal dinner and various other meals held at the home of Chanowitz and her husband, Rabbi Moishe Chanowitz.

“We’ll be going with the traditional holiday meal style,” she said. “We’ll have the round challahs and the new fruits and the gefilte fish and the meat, which is always a big hit. For a lot of people this is completely new and something they’ve never experienced before.”

While currently Chanowitz has to ship all kosher meat in from Miami – as none is available on the island – she hopes that that soon she will find a way to incorporate Caribbean cuisine on the “kosher menu.”

“For now, if it’s not the food, it’s the conversation and the décor that bring a bit of Caribbean flavor to Chabad of St. Maarten,” she pointed out. “We’re creating a new Caribbean style.”

For now, S. Maarten’s tropical climes and postcard-perfect beaches provide ample inspiration, creating a serene and spiritually nourishing backdrop for welcoming in the Jewish New Year.

“We’re looking forward to a happy, healthy sweet New Year,” declared Chanowitz. “The warmth and sunshine of St. Maarten gives everybody that positive and upbeat spirit. We’re giving locals and tourists alike the opportunity to celebrate their traditions and get closer to their Jewish roots. We’re hoping for a new year of growth and development of Judaism on the island.”