When I touched down in St. Thomas last month, I became the first Israeli representative to visit the U.S. Virgin Islands, and therefore the first emissary of the Third Jewish Commonwealth to meet the island’s four-century-old Jewish community. More than making history, the three days there have helped me reflect on these past two years in New York, and about my position at the crossroads of Israeli and Diaspora Jewish life.
Professionally, wherever I travel my goal is to build local connections to strengthen Israel’s relationship with every segment of the U.S., showing Americans that Israel is their friend and ally first, foremost, and above party lines. We came to St. Thomas looking to do precisely that, delivering aid to a preschool devastated by hurricanes, discussing mutual economic opportunities with government officials, and even featuring on the front page of The Virgin Islands Daily News.
Personally, however, it always comes back to Jews, and my most thrilling encounter in St. Thomas was the opportunity to delve further into my lifelong hobby of exploring old and unique Jewish communities, searching for inspiration in synagogues and cemeteries.
On previous travels I have especially sought out connections to my own past. Driving solo for days and nourished mainly by Yiddish music albums, I found breadcrumbs of my past all over Ukraine, from the remains of my family’s shtetl Zhashkov to the gravesite of the Baal Shem Tov, where I was surprised to find a namesake resting alongside one of Judaism’s great mystics.
Falling in love with the tragic romance of shtetl life, I travelled on to the Diaspora’s last remaining exclusively Jewish enclaves—Qırmızı Qəsəbə (Krasnaya Sloboda) in Azerbaijan, and the Hasidic enclaves in New York State, to which I also have a personal connection. One of my ancestors was a close confidant of the then Skverer Rebbe in Ukraine, whose sect have recreated their prewar community in the new world. Today, the current rebbe and I have rebuilt that connection between our families, another blessing from my time in New York, and I receive invitations to semachot in New Square on a regular basis.
My travels have not only been to places of dwindling or displaced Jewish life. In northern Portugal, after mincha in a newly reopened synagogue 500 years after the expulsion, I joined anusim singing עוצו עצה ותופר דברו דבר ולא יקום, that the decree of destruction will not be carried out because God is with them. In the Peruvian delta island of Iquitos, I witnessed the resurrection of Jewish identity, with Amazonians named Cohen and Ben Zaken now converting to Judaism, generations after their namesakes came from the East and married local women. True to form there was already two synagogues in the village, so that the newly converting Jews can choose one to never go to.
Back in the Virgin Islands, rather than a place of extinction or rebirth, I found a small community at the steady height of its powers, with 400 members living with a heritage of peace and coexistence, long after their ancestors survived a desperate journey out of persecution.
Jews came to the St. Thomas in 1655 against the backdrop of the intercontinental Inquisition. Hounded from Europe across the Atlantic, the Catholic Church soon caught up to them in Brazil and Suriname, forcing thousands of families to scatter once more in search of safe harbors.
St. Thomas’ synagogue is nevertheless a testament to the complexities of Jewish-Gentle relations. Congregation Beracha Veshalom Vegmiluth Hasadim stands as the oldest in constant use under the U.S. flag, and the second oldest in the Western Hemisphere. Conversely, it is also one of the few remaining synagogues in the world with a sand floor, built to insulate heaven-bound prayers from wicked ears as a precaution passed down by Marranos who whispered psalms in their cellars.
The heart of the St. Thomas community beat with the spirit of the Wandering Jew. Perhaps the nation’s Jewish residents dared not dig permanent roots on a small island with tormentors real or imagined always on the horizon. I could not be sure if this was why the island’s cemeteries have so few Hebrew inscriptions compared to the scores of burial grounds I have seen around the world. Perhaps this is due to an inherited wariness, that should the community be forced to flee, identifiably Jewish graves would be desecrated. It may come from a place of comfortable assimilation, that Hebrew was no longer the language that St. Thomas’ Jews saw themselves linked to for eternity. Perhaps over time the first reason evolved into the second.
It is that sense of mystery that will keep me traveling after Jewish stories across the world, and pursuing questions even after a discovery; in any case it must have been beyond the founding members’ boldest invocations that their community would continue long enough for an ambassador of the re-liberated Jewish homeland to visit their descendants—a beautiful and melancholy thought to meditate on.
As in Zhashkov, St. Thomas also sparked thoughts of my own family’s story. Seeing how Jews silenced their prayers reminded me of the story of my father, Moshe, who was smuggled as a child from Ukraine to Poland with cloth in his mouth. Somewhat ironically he found sanctuary in Latin America, not far from where Jews would have been chased into the Caribbean Sea three centuries earlier, later making aliyah with our family.
Just as I followed my father’s trail back through Poland and Ukraine, I walk in his footsteps today as an Israeli ambassador. Despite a hugely positive experience with American Jews, where I have been struck by the community’s strength and depth, unfortunately my experiences have not been as singularly affirming as my time in St Thomas.
The pain and fear I found in Charlottesville, where I traveled for Shabbat immediately after the neo-Nazi violence last summer, is a warning light that despite our differences, Jews will always need each other. In St. Thomas I came in part to make a small but symbolic piece of Jewish history, but in Charlottesville I was present to show solidarity, and to mourn Heather Heyer, a guardian angel who was killed for standing up to hatred. While crossing bridges back into the past has an ageless mystique and will remain a lifelong passion, it has also strengthened my mission today in New York: to secure the bridges which connect us and stretch out into our future.
Previous generations of Jews were responsible for the safety of their European, and then Soviet and Ethiopian cousins. The current generation has two special mitzvot: to ensure that the state of Israel remains a strong, secure and thriving country, and to make sure that Jewish communities around the entire world are allowed to flourish and succeed in peace I have seen enough of the world to know that not everywhere can be as blessed as St. Thomas, but I have seen more than enough that gives me hope for the future too.
Ambassador Dani Dayan is Israel’s Consul General in New York