Jewish life in the tropics

Since 1796 Jews have been living on St. Thomas Island. Only recently, however, has Chabad moved in.

lubavitch rebbe 88 (photo credit:)
lubavitch rebbe 88
(photo credit: )
Katina Coulianos is one of a handful of Jews living on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas who can trace her lineage back five generations. Her great-great-great-grandparents arrived from Germany and Lithuania during the mid-19th century. Considering that this island of 83 square kilometers boasts the oldest synagogue in continuous use under the American flag, it is surprising that more of its Jewish population are not descended from the original Jews to settle on St. Thomas, where they enjoyed freedom from persecution during a tumultuous time in Jewish history. But circumstances and assimilation continuously undermined the island's Jewish population until a fairly recent influx of Jews from North America boosted its Jewish demographic to where it holds steady today. That figure, says Rabbi Asher Federman, founder and rabbi of Chabad of the Virgin Islands, is estimated at 600 full-time residents and an additional 2,000 Jews who reside there during the winter. Coulianos is very active in the St. Thomas Synagogue, in downtown Charlotte Amalie, which has served the US Virgin Islands' Jewish community since 1833 and which succeeded the original synagogue erected in 1796 by the island's original Sephardic Jewish population. It was destroyed after a series of fires. Coulianos served as the synagogue's president from 2002 through 2006 and on the Board of Directors for 14 years. The synagogue, a designated landmark, is known for its beauty, unique features and stately interior. It has a sand floor, a reminder of the Spanish Inquisition when Jews who chose to practice their religion had to do so in secrecy, meeting in cellars with a sand floor to muffle the sound. Legend also tells us that the sand floor is symbolic of the Jews wandering through the desert for 40 years. Rabbi Arthur Starr, the full-time rabbi since 2002, estimates that the synagogue is toured by 10,000 visitors per year, a figure garnered by the number of people signing the guest book. He regularly gives tours to about 25 people at a time and each lasts for approximately 20 minutes. On the morning of our interview, he had already given a tour to 150 people, relating the history of the island's Jewish community, the synagogue and its sand floor and other unique elements. He showed me the menora behind the pulpit, which is 1,000 years old and was brought from Morocco, and the chandeliers, which look French in design and are all original Baccarat crystal. "Only some have been electrified; the rest still use candles," he says. He enjoys telling visitors the story of the Jews who fled from Spain, where they went and how they ended up on St. Thomas. He also introduces visitors to the synagogue's gift shop and adjacent small museum, which mostly contains historical documents tracing the history of the Jews on the island. "In my family," says Coulianos, "my generation is the third intermarried generation, yet we have remained Jewish. My grandfather was Lutheran. My father was Greek Orthodox. My husband is Lutheran. All of them were 'imports.'" Coulianos has two sons and says it would not surprise her if they marry out of the religion, though she says she would be "thrilled" if they found Jewish spouses and "very upset" if her grandchildren are not raised Jewish. Starr is well aware of the risk of assimilation and takes measures to prevent it. He holds on-going adult education classes on the book of Genesis, offers religious school for youngsters on Saturday mornings and Tuesday afternoons, organizes monthly "kosher-style" communal Shabbat meals, holds holiday parties and runs a Jewish film series that is widely attended. "We try to give our kids the best education we can. We have scholarship money to send them up to the States for Jewish summer camp; we have money set aside to send our kids on Israel programs, not just on birthright," says Starr. "We try to give them as much Jewish exposure and identification as we can." He acknowledges that there is always a danger of assimilating when you're a minority and notes that it has been happening on St. Thomas for 175 years. According to Starr, while the Jews represented half of the white population on the island around the year 1850, today it comprises just below 10 percent of the white population, which Starr estimates at around 7,500. Eighty-five percent of the population is black. "The bad news is we've lost generations of Jews to assimilation. The good news is we've got a lot of friends here in the non-Jewish community because their grandparents were Jews, so there is no anti-Semitism here. They love the synagogue." THE ST. THOMAS Synagogue, originally Orthodox but today affiliated with the Reform movement, was the only synagogue on the island until Chabad established a permanent presence nearly three years ago. Today, Federman is in the midst of building a large Chabad center while continuing to offer residents and visitors regular prayer services, Jewish education, counseling and holiday celebrations. He also has plans to open a Jewish visitors' center in downtown Charlotte Amalie. Starr half-jokingly describes the historic synagogue as "Reconformodox," explaining that people from all denominations are active in it and it is a cohesive community, undivided by differences in Jewish practice. "The dynamics here are very different than a regular community in the States," Federman agrees. That is, in fact, what resident Herbert Horwitz, on the verge of considering himself "Orthodox," finds so special about Jewish life on the island. "Whether we are Reform or Orthodox, we are a very close-knit group of people," says Horwitz, who regularly attends Chabad services and learns with its rabbi, but who also remains active in the St. Thomas Synagogue. He describes the mingling of both "congregations" on holidays and during special events, such as the Jewish Film Series. He led the services at the historic synagogue before Starr became rabbi, but always from an Orthodox siddur. His wife, Iris, is on the Board of Directors and instituted its Friday night Oneg Shabbat, but as soon as it's over, she joins her husband at Chabad. Starr's congregation has grown from 70 families to 110 since he assumed the post almost six years ago. "Of the 110 families, I would say 30 to 35 of them are more like snowbirds in Florida," says Starr, describing the yearly migration south during the winter. While most of the congregation have grown children, there are some young families. "We've had five or six children born in the community over the past five years," Starr says. "We also have 30 to 35 bar or bat mitzvas scheduled this year," he adds, explaining that 29 people from the US or Canada are coming this year just for this purpose. "I don't think of it as a 'destination bar mitzva,' as in a 'destination wedding.' I think of it as an alternative to those horrible things that pass as bar mitzvas up in the States that cost a quarter of a million dollars." Rabbis Starr and Federman get along well and support each other's endeavors. They realize that "with so many [Jews] unaffiliated, there was so much more to do," says Federman, who works as a team with his wife, Henya, reaching out to both the residents and the multitude of tourists who flock to the island each year, often descending from cruise ships. "We service about 300 Jews at this point, whether it is classes, people who come to daven, people who come to Friday night Shabbat dinners or people we are in touch with who benefit from our mailings," says Federman. His family also enjoys the company of three or four guest families each Shabbat at their home for meals. In fact, guest quarters are part of the architectural plans for his Chabad Center. This past Hanukka, the Federmans brought down a couple of rabbinical students to distribute 2,000 hanukkiyot and reach out to Jewish visitors all across St. Thomas and nearby St. John and St. Croix, inviting them to their annual Hanukka party. At Purim and Pessah times, they do the same, only they distribute the traditional food packages. The Federmans also direct visitors to where they can find kosher food and observe family purity laws. The tranquility that surrounds the Jewish community living in the lush, mountainous terrain alongside the blue-green water so characteristic of the Caribbean is part of its allure. That may be one reason why St. Thomas provides an alternative retirement destination to South Florida. In fact, Federman encourages retirees to consider St. Thomas, though he does not recommend that Jewish families raising children settle on the island. Asked if he sees the Jewish community of St. Thomas growing, dwindling or remaining constant in the future, after careful consideration Federman replies that he sees it staying the same. He explains that there will always be some people who leave after a year or two because the lifestyle is not what they expected, while once his Chabad Center is more established, he anticipates that many Jewish visitors will find St. Thomas an attractive place to retire. "Instead of moving to Miami, they'll know they have the option of moving to a place like St. Thomas."