It’s the fourth night of Chanukah on St. Thomas, the U.S. Virgin Islands. Two Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical students are walking through the island’s Red Hook neighborhood, home to a handful of restaurants and bars, armed with menorahs, candles and dreidels. All of a sudden, a young woman catches a glimpse of them and bursts into tears.

“I just moved here, and it’s my first-ever Chanukah away from my family,” she tells them, her voice still emotional. “Today I was thinking to myself how I could ever find a menorah and some Chanukah chocolate coins here of all places, and now you come along!”

The young rabbis happily supplied her with one of the gold-colored tin menorahs they’d brought with them. They even had the chocolate Chanukah “gelt” coins she so badly wanted—a small taste of home. It was one of those Chabad Chanukah miracles that happen so often around the world, yet remain as poignant and wondrous each time that they do.

Each winter, Chanukah arrives to illuminate the long, dark nights with a spiritual warmth that touches the soul. This is so whether in a harsh northern winter or a tropical Caribbean one. And for the Virgin Islands community, which for the past month has grappled with an unfathomable darkness, the light of Chanukah could not have come any sooner.

On the evening of Nov. 29, a tragic waterfront accident took the life of 4-month-old Shterna Federman, the baby daughter of Rabbi Asher and Henya Federman, directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of the Virgin Islands. Henya herself had to be rescued from the water, resuscitated and evacuated to Miami via emergency medical transport. As Henya undergoes critical care, now in a hospital in New Jersey, she continues to fight for her life.

Even after the great loss and in the midst of the ongoing personal anguish, Rabbi Federman knew Jewish life on the Virgin Islands, which he and his wife have called home since 2005, must go on—especially with Chanukah approaching. He immediately arranged for 13 rabbinical students to come to the islands and lead an array of Chanukah programs. Since the beginning of Chanukah the young rabbis have distributed hundreds of tin menorahs, ignited 15 giant public Chanukah menorahs at the airport and cruise bays, hotels and island landmarks, and shared the spirit and joy of Chanukah with thousands of local residents and tourists across St. Thomas, St. John, Water Island and even more-distant St. Croix.

“Our goal is literally to reach every single Jew on the Virgin Islands,” explains Mendel Banon, center, a rabbinical student from Montreal.
“Our goal is literally to reach every single Jew on the Virgin Islands,” explains Mendel Banon, center, a rabbinical student from Montreal.

“Our goal is literally to reach every single Jew on the Virgin Islands,” explains Mendel Banon, a rabbinical student from Montreal who arrived on St. Thomas 36 hours after the Federman’s accident.

The flurry of activities will culminate in Chanukah 1000, which is expected to be the largest Jewish event in the history of the Caribbean islands. The event will take place at the Fort Christian Parking Lot on Dec. 25 at 5 p.m. and will feature Chassidic rapper Nissim Black.

This gathering has added significance this year as Jewish communities worldwide mark the year of Hakhel, the once-every-seven-years biblical tradition that sees Jewish gatherings focused on unity, Torah learning and practice. In St. Thomas, the gathering will also serve as a time for communal prayer and support for the Federman family during this time of crisis.

The students have been reaching out to individuals and groups.
The students have been reaching out to individuals and groups.

A Community Unites in Prayer

Sharon Triman, originally from upstate New York, has lived on St. Thomas since 1994. Before that she was living in Holland. Why did she choose to leave the North Sea for the Caribbean? “I was cold,” says Triman. “It seemed like the right move.”

She met the Federmans not long after they arrived on St. Thomas and established Chabad of the Virgin Islands. “They heard there’s a Jewish yoga teacher living on the east end of the island and Rabbi Asher reached out to me,” she says. “We’ve been close friends ever since.”

The philosophical discussions between the rabbi and the yoga teacher flowed. “We had an interesting rapport,” she says with a laugh. “Obviously we didn’t agree on everything!” Nonetheless, she loved coming to Chabad and spending time with the Federman family. “They brought this great sense of tradition, of simcha [joy], it’s where I felt I was connecting to my parents, my grandparents.” Soon, she too became a part of the family. “To the children I’m ‘Tante’ [aunt in Yiddish] Sharon, that’s how it’s been for years.”

On a regular year, the Federmans would have been leading a full array of Chanukah programs on the Virgin Islands. “There was always so much for the children,” she says. “And this sense of joy and light.”

A public menorah overlooks the Caribbean.
A public menorah overlooks the Caribbean.

Triman says she was just sitting with Henya a few weeks ago. “She has these lovely planters in front of the house and we were planning an herb garden. Then this happened. I can’t think about anything else now.”

It’s difficult to go out and be social at the moment, says Triman, but she’s been observing the rabbinical students bringing Chanukah to the island this year. “It’s wonderful what they’re doing, keeping the light on at the Chabad house, distributing menorahs.”

Triman, hundreds of her fellow Jewish community members on the Virgin Islands, and countless people around the world, have all committed to doing mitzvahs for Henya’s recovery.

“Every candle I light, every latke I make and every prayer I say is for the Federmans,” she says.

A dockside menorah welcomes travelers.
A dockside menorah welcomes travelers.

Menorahs and Mitzvahs in the Month of Miracles

Banon and the rabbinical students have their hands full. They’ve already done hundreds of house calls, visiting Jews on all four of the islands, helping them with tefillin, lighting the menorah, or just making impromptu Chanukah parties. Each day brings countless stories.

Banon and a friend spent the summer reaching out to Jews living on the more remote parts of the Virgin Islands on Federman’s behalf. On St. Croix, a few hour ferry ride from St. Thomas, they met a Jewish woman with a 12-year-old son. Three months later the Chabad rabbinical students were back on St. Croix with a pair of tefillin and a menorah to make a Chanukah bar mitzvah.

Two other Chabad rabbis were walking in St. John when they met a Jewish man. They thought they recognized each other, but how? The man, it ended up, was a vacationer from Detroit. One of the rabbis had studied in Detroit. Each Friday he’d visit a route of Jewish businesses, and this now-tourist was one of them. Back in Detroit the man had declined to don tefillin when asked for three years. Providentially meeting on St. John all this time later, he put on the tefillin.

Or there was the Israeli couple who stopped to watch the rabbis erecting the public menorah at the airport. The wife was very excited, the husband less so. The rabbi engaged the husband and asked if he’d like to put on tefillin. No. Between pressure from his wife and the sales tactics of the young rabbi, he finally agreed. But when they get to the blessing he stops.

“I won’t say G‑d’s name,” he told them. “I don’t believe in Him.”

Welcoming Jewish cruise ship passegers to the Virgin Islands.
Welcoming Jewish cruise ship passegers to the Virgin Islands.

They made it over this hump as well. Then came the hallowed words of “Shema Yisrael,” the foundational prayer of Judaism: “Hear, O Israel: G‑d is our L‑rd, G‑d is one.”

“When the man got to G‑d’s name in ‘Shema,’ he burst out crying,” says Banon. “It was an unbelievable moment.”

Just one among the many, countless points of light illuminating the Virgin Islands.

“The Chanukah Lights,” wrote the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—“remind us in a most obvious way that illumination begins at home, within oneself and one’s family, by increasing and intensifying the light of the Torah and Mitzvos in the everyday experience, even as the Chanukah Lights are kindled in growing numbers from day to day.”

Yet there’s more:

“... [T]hough it begins at home, it does not stop there,” the Rebbe continued. “Such is the nature of light that when one kindles a light for one’s own benefit, it benefits also all who are in the vicinity.”

That’s the sense now on the Virgin Islands. That all the Chanukah menorahs and mitzvahs, the tefillin and the parties, the joy that has suffused the Jewish community and visitors, is bringing additional and growing blessings for Henya Federman and the Federman family.

Sharon Triman says that though she’s been mostly staying in, she’s going to try to make it out to the beautiful Fort Christian venue for the Chanukah celebration and concert. It’s important to gather together, especially in times like these, in a joy-filled atmosphere, especially on Chanukah.

After all, she says, “it’s the month of miracles.”

Crowd celebrates the fourth night of Chanukah on St. Thomas.
Crowd celebrates the fourth night of Chanukah on St. Thomas.