It has been a long week here on our beloved St. Thomas. It certainly feels like we are in another year, another time. After being devastated by Hurricane Irma, our island was struck by an additional blow from Hurricane Maria. Maria brought with it a lot more water than Irma had, and was excruciatingly difficult for our fellow islanders with damaged homes.
Thank G-d, other than some flooding, losing another new air-conditioning unit, a stocked freezer and some chairs, our home and Chabad house did much better than during Irma. Yet tragedy has not bypassed the community. On Sunday, my wife Henya and I were shocked and deeply saddened to learn of our friend Ralph Evert’s tragic passing. Ralph was killed after a mudslide buried his home. A few years ago we bar mitzvahed Ralph and Julie’s wonderful son, Charlie, and we are filled with pain for them and their loved ones. May he rest in peace.
Rosh Hashanah on an island that has been hit hard not once, but twice, was an experience. For me, personally, it was a difficult first to celebrate the start of the Jewish new year without my wife and children, who currently are on the mainland. There was also a 24-hour curfew in effect on the first day of the holiday to allow for the clearing of roads and put safety precautions in place to protect from mudslides. Fortunately, a number of members of our Jewish community moved in for yom tov, and after the curfew was lifted, a constant flow of visitors joined us to pray, hear the shofar and enjoy the food on hand—a cheering experience for us all. (Our Rosh Hashanah food consisted mostly of cold-cut sandwiches; much of the prepared kosher food did not make it to St. Thomas due to an early-morning mishap in Florida).
It was through a different lens that we viewed Rosh Hashanah this year. Many of the familiar prayers took on a new breadth, depth and dimension. The contrast between the Eternal and Almighty King, and human frailty; humankind’s limited capacity to understand the ways of G-d, upon whom sways the fates of countries; life’s utter unpredictability; and the unyielding optimism and determination of our ancestors in the face of challenges and setbacks.
After services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, two friends and I ventured out of the Chabad house to blow shofar for our Jewish neighbors. It was a moving experience. Without fail, in each and every home that we visited, the words of the new year prayer, “May the fountain of my eyelids, flowing as a stream, be accepted before you,” resonated deeply. I brought along a machzor holiday prayerbook so that we could recite some of the prayers together at each stop.
It was a long day, and at one point, we made it to the entrance of the Ritz-Carlton resort. Any other year, the white-sand beach, calm ambiance and elegant architecture of the place would bring together a few blissful Jews happy to hear the shofar. Now, the place felt desolate.
I approached the U.S. Marines, who had barricaded the front entrance, and asked if any of their comrades were celebrating the Jewish new year. “Yes, there are two of us who are!” replied a Marine. “Last night Noah was telling our whole group about the Jewish Rosh Hashanah while we were all going to sleep.”
How unbelievable, I thought to myself, is the spirit of our people to see such deep Jewish faith during, literally, the darkest of nights. The two Jewish Marines were in complete disbelief when they saw us. “G-d has remembered me on this day!” one of them exclaimed. I explained the theme of the zichronos (“remembrance”) prayer that states, “Who is not recalled on this day? For the remembrance of every created being comes before You.” Nothing and nobody is forgotten by G-d.
As we spoke, a group of non-Jewish military personnel assembled around us. I told all of them the significance of the simple, honest, primal cry of the shofar—how it pierces the heavens. A few of them were from Puerto Rico and had not yet heard word from family. We said a prayer for their loved ones. You could sense how deeply moved everyone was.
I asked Noah, one of the Jewish Marines, to say the blessing. Hearing him chant Lishmoah Kol Shofar (“to hear the cry of the shofar”), and Shehechiyanu in that “still, soft voice” was a moment I will never forget, a moment I had never imagined could occur at the Ritz St. Thomas, formerly the epitome of pleasure and relaxation.
Walking back up the hill and out of the complex, I saw a newly bar mitzvahed friend, Sorin Gibbs (we recently put on tefillin together for the first time; he is one of the few family employees staying at the hotel), shouting out to us from a balcony. I blew the shofar for him and his family; I’m certain it was loud enough to be heard on St. John.
The three of us made it back home to the Chabad house with a few minutes left before Shabbat and enough time to recite the final prayer of the new year.
And I have to confess. Many of the prayers talk about the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Many of the prayers talk about the gathering of the dispersed. I couldn’t help but think about our special little island and all of our dear friends who have temporarily left, but whose hearts and souls remain here.
And so I prayed for the broken hearts in our community, for the mental and emotional well-being of those who are suffering, and for our healing. I prayed for peace and security. I prayed that G-d give us strength to get through these challenging times. I prayed that from the narrowness of the shofar’s mouth blast forth expanse and plenty in the coming year and beyond. I prayed for the strength of our community, and that the Virgin Islands be restored to its full beauty and charm. I prayed that G-d give me the strength, health, resources, wisdom and courage to grow and to be there for others.
And I prayed and prayed… Together with Henya, 1,400 miles away, we prayed that “G-d, Who sees on this day from one end of the world to the other, from the beginning of generations to the end” bless us to continue serving our beloved Virgin Islands community, and merit children and grandchildren who will follow in the the ways of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, sharing the warmth and beauty of yiddishkeit with this community, and the world.
Since Rosh Hashanah has ended, our relief work has continued. Before Maria, Puerto Rico was a source of aid. Now they themselves are struggling, and the Virgin Islands must look elsewhere for assistance.
On Tuesday, another container filled with aid, food and vital supplies arrived here. We spent all of Wednesday distributing it together with the Family Resource Center in St. Thomas, and are working on transportation to get portions over to those who need it on St. John. Together with volunteers from across the spectrum of the Virgin Islands community, we have been driving around specific neighborhoods distributing thousands of meals and supplies in conjunction with government officials and other helpful agencies. Additional containers are set to arrive next week.
Now, Yom Kippur is approaching. Please G-d, the Jewish community will receive curfew passes so residents can come out on Friday evening for Kol Nidrei. We are still waiting for the government’s response on the matter. Yom Kippur will be followed by Sukkot and Simchat Torah. And then Chanukah, Purim and Passover. We will rebuild, but there is a long road ahead.