Rabbi Moishe Chanowitz never imagined that he would be the first person in 350 years to serve as the bridge over an international border on the Caribbean island of St. Martin. But this year, he will be doing just that: For Rosh Hashanah, he will be heading to the French-Dutch border on the island to blow shofar for residents on both sides.

The tiny Caribbean island is unique in many ways, among them this interesting fact: It is the smallest land mass in the world that contains the territory of two distinct countries. A product of long-ago European colonial days, half of the island is Dutch, while the other half is French.

The agreement—called “The Treaty of Concordia” or the “Partition Treaty of 1648”—was signed on March 23, 1648 between the Kingdom of France and the Dutch Republic, dividing the island. It was and remains an amicable agreement, with citizens moving freely about from one side to the other and, as the treaty stipulates, “other commodities of the said island shall be common, and shall serve to provide the wants of the inhabitants.”

This year, for the first time, this internal border—dubbed the “Bellevue Border”—was closed, and suddenly, people found themselves locked out of half an island they have grown up with their entire lives.

Of course, it’s all because of the coronavirus pandemic. Back in March of this year when COVID-19 cases were first confirmed, the entire island went into lockdown. As confirmed cases dropped off, both sides of the island slowly reopened, and by late July, the Dutch side was planning to reopen their airport to international travelers.

The French side was not very keen on this idea, fearing the possibility of infection from abroad. And so, when the Dutch side went ahead with its opening plan on Aug. 1, the French took the drastic step of closing off the border to their Dutch neighbors.

“It created real chaos,” says Chanowitz, who co-directs Chabad-Lubavitch of S. Maarten/Martin with his wife, Sara. “People live on one side and do business on the other, while others go to school on one end away from their homes on the other end. It’s really one country, and no one ever looked at the border as anything other than a symbolic marker. The only difference is the electric company, really.”

Shofar: The Border Bridge

As Rosh Hashanah got closer, Chanowitz, who resides in the city of Simpson Bay on the Dutch part of the island, realized that many local Jews who live on the French side would not be able to hear the shofar this year, unable as they were to cross over and visit him in his Dutch home.

During an average year, the island teems with tourists and snowbirds, in addition to the local Jewish community scattered about. The Chanowitzes cater to them all, hosting services every year for the High Holidays and beyond.

But with the coronavirus pandemic all but shuttering the local tourism industry, the Chanowitzes realized that they had the opportunity to focus even more than usual on the local community and those few snowbirds quarantined on the island.

Phillipe Goldman is one such resident. A native of Paris, he has lived on the French side of the island for 15 years now, and when he’s around for the holidays, he makes sure to meet up with the rabbi to attend High Holiday services and hear the shofar.

When Chanowitz told him that he was planning on bringing the shofar to the Bellevue Border, and blow for both the French and Dutch Jews on their respective sides, Goldman was overjoyed.

“I plan on being there Sunday, G‑d willing, and I’m sure that when I hear the shofar, it will remind me of former times,” he told Chabad.org. “Right now, we feel so apart from each other. This split has really kept us away from one another, and we are all so happy to have this chance to gather and be a community again.”

UPDATE: The day before Rosh Hashanah, due to overwhelming protests, the local government relented and opened the border. Rabbi Chanowitz still plans on blowing for people who will gather there on Rosh Hashanah.