Jewish community rallies to save Jerusalemite stranded at sea

Artist Amit Mendel became stranded off the coast of Jamaica when the coronavirus pandemic caused all borders to be closed.

NEW IN Jamaica: Chabad Kosher Hotspot, Montego Bay, Jamaica (photo credit: CHABAD OF JAMAICA)
NEW IN Jamaica: Chabad Kosher Hotspot, Montego Bay, Jamaica
(photo credit: CHABAD OF JAMAICA)
An Israeli sailor who was unable to dock in the Caribbean for many weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic has finally been repatriated, thanks to the efforts of Chabad of Jamaica to get him home, Chabad.org reported.
Amit Mendel, an artist by trade and something of a nomad, became trapped off the coast of Jamaica en route to Cuba from Martinique after the boat he was sharing with an Italian seafarer was damaged in a storm. When his shipmate became seasick from the rolling seas, Mendel was left to shepherd their 40 ft vessel to the Dominican Republic alone, from where he hoped to eventually make his way to Mexico.
However, coronavirus then hit.
With no other choice, Mendel re-united with his Italian shipmate to continue their journey to Cuba, and the pair applied for visas - only to discover that the island had shut her borders. So they backtracked to the Dominican Republic and, having made contact with Israel's ambassador, attempted to return to shore.
“The army aimed their guns at us and barked at us to leave,” Mendel told Chabad.org.
Hoping that Jamaica would still be open, the pair set out to sea once more. With enough provisions only to last the two day trip, the journey stretched out into five days, and by the time they reached Jamaica she too had shut her borders just as they arrived.
Mendel and his shipmate now found themselves trapped on a small, battered vessel with limited supplies and land in sight.
“We only had rice left, and relations between us weren't in a good state,” Mendel told Chabad.org. His Italian shipmate forgot the PIN to his credit card and Mendel's wasn't working, so the pair couldn't have supplies delivered from a local supermarket by the police, as others moored nearby had.
“The situation was so bad physically and mentally until I simply swam to the coast of a small island in the bay, where there were coconuts, bananas and mangoes growing wild,” he recounted. Building a raft from reeds, Mendel was able to drag his haul back to the boat.
Thankfully, wild fruit was not his only source of sustenance. Mendel was also helped by director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Jamaica Rabbi Yaakov Raskin who sent food parcels and care packages, including matzah for Passover and SIM cards to keep Mendel in touch with loved ones, despite Raskin also being stranded, albeit in New York. The pair were helped by Shalom Hadora and his son, fellow Israelis who live on the Island and were able to deliver the packages.
“All this time I was in constant contact with Rabbi Yaakov Raskin who was sending me food parcels, and the [Israeli] Foreign Ministry, which was asking the Jamaicans to allow me entry,” Mendel recalls. This situation continued for six long weeks, as a short-term border closure was rolled out to last until June.
Stuck on a boat, in sight of land but unable to reach it and with an unsavory shipmate, Mendel's family were worried for the toll the situation was taking on his mental health and started to fear for his life.
Thankfully, according to Chabad.com, intense diplomatic efforts were underway, made by Israel's ambassador in the Dominican Republic, Danny Biran, whose portfolio covers the Caribbean. With no commercial flights operating between Jamaica and Israel, Mendel needed to fly through the United States - but had no visa to enter. Working with Ainsley Henriques, Israel’s honorary consul in Jamaica and a Jamaican Jew for several generations, Biran was able to secure Mendel a visa but he had no way of entering Jamaica to receive it.
After negotiations with the Israeli diplomats, Jamaican officials agreed to let Mendal land in order to collect his visa on the condition he returned immediately to his ship, but this put him back to square one, and the diplomats needing to find another way around the situation.
“It’s like being in prison in paradise,” a distressed Mendel told to Raskin, the pair keeping in touch daily throughout the ordeal. “I can see land, a beautiful island, but I cannot go there.”
“We had to save Amit’s life,” Raskin recounted. “His parents were afraid for the worst.”
Knowing something needed to be done, Raskin reached out to everyone he could think of - every government minster he knew; an influential lawyer who had helped Chabad previously; and he penned a letter to be sent to the Ohel, the resting place in Queens, New York of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson - calling on him to intercede.
Within two hours the lawyer contacted Raskin to deliver the good news: the authorities had relented and would allow Mendel to fly to New York.
In America, Mendel met with Raskin in Brooklyn's Crown Heights for a 24 hour stop-over before continuing on to Israel. There, the rabbi took Mendel to visit the Ohel for pray and to give thanks for his deliverance. Raskin helped Mendel to wrap tefillin, whereupon the artist vowed to wrap tefillin each weekday in thanks to God for helping him.
As the pair headed to a local scribe who agreed to open his office especially for the purchase of new tefillin, Raskin bumped into an old friend who, upon hearing the story, asked to sponsor the pair of tefillin.
"Don’t give up," Mendel said, reflecting upon what he had learned from the ordeal. "Even when you have no idea what’s going to happen, trust in God, and we’ll all be alright. Have confidence—in yourself and in God.”
After Raskin thanked Biran for his help with the process, the ambassador responded in kind, saying: “It’s all of us together, rabbi.”
Biran further told Chabad.org: “Everywhere I've served in my line of work—be it Peru, be it Thailand or anywhere else, there has never been a time that I've turned to the Chabad emissaries in a quest to help a fellow Jew and not received an immediate response, from the heart, happy to help. They are a great honor to the Jewish people.”


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