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Saints and the Temple

March 10, 2011 By:
Susan Perloff
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Sonia and Joseph Weissman wake early on Wednesday to attend 8 a.m. minyan at the Flamingo Beach Resort, in Simpson Bay, St. Maarten.

The Weissmans, of the Hillcrest section of Queens, are not the only vacationers among the 20 Jews in attendance. In this half-Dutch (St. Maarten), half-French (St. Martin) Caribbean island, daily minyan began at the beginning of January -- held for the first time in a few hundred years. Rabbi Moishe Chanowitz, who moved here in August 2009, has been finding the Jews on the island and creating a Jewish community.

So now, when you visit the saints -- St. Maarten, St. Barts, St. Kitts -- you can be Jewish, it is contended.

"There has been no rabbi here since the 18th century," says Chanowitz, although Chabad has often sent rabbis, including himself, to preside over the High Holidays.

"We don't have to be careful," says the rabbi. "We're not worried or scared of other people. We don't have to hide. Some Palestinians live here, and we get along."

Although Chanowitz has "never found any sort of anti-Semitism," he hires a security guard each Shabbat.

Having met 200 Jews here, 20 of them children, Chanowitz, son of a rabbi in the Catskills, assumes that the total Jewish population hovers around 300. With a congregation so small, he has no concern for the kind of Judaism people practice.

The Jews who now inhabit St. Maarten migrated primarily from other Dutch Islands, the United States and Israel, history shows. Some came for vacation, others for business, and, finding a paradise, they stayed.

People visit SXM, the airport code that passes for a nickname for the island, for sun, beaches and sundry resort pleasures. Small casinos dot the island, as do restaurants of world cuisines, if not world class.

On the days when cruise ships dock, hordes of Americans, Canadians and others throng into the shops that line Front street in Phillipsburg, the Dutch capital.

"You must not be on a cruise," the owner of an Indian-import boutique says to a visitor. When asked how he can tell, he says: "You're not in a hurry. People on cruise ships come in, look at everything, touch two things and run out. You're actually looking."

Indeed. Renting a car for a week gives easy access to narrow, damaged two-lane roads often jammed with three cars. But patience and bottled water sustain you as you seek the butterfly farm, cows roaming a residential neighborhood and a sandbar to a mini-islet at low tide.

Two simple signs mark the two-room shul/Torah study/kosher counter that sits above a popular breakfast restaurant. A steep, curved staircase, with nautical rope as handrail, leads up to a simple space that somehow feels Jewish. It's calm, serene. It feels right.

A handmade wooden ark occupies center stage, and two small, plain stained-glass windows add sparkle, though one is in the bathroom.

Once the space held a Baptist church. At the January opening of the Chabad center/synagogue, Rabbi Mendel Zarchi of Puerto Rico said the decision to build was an historic moment for the Jewish community.

"We were very nervous," he said. "God has invested in each of us the ability to perform a miracle."

He called it a "launching pad" for the contemporary Jewish community.

Near the entry, an incongruous low, white freezer changes the mood, but it usually holds the kosher foods that Chanowitz imports for all who care to order.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

After finding an apartment big enough for prayer services, Chanowitz started finding the Jewish people -- practicing or not, committed or not. On the last Saturday in January, he attracted 60 people. Some sail over from nearby islands.

The rabbi teaches Hebrew school in English and Hebrew. Initially, he hired a French interpreter, but he said he has learned enough français to skip that expense. "We're about to celebrate Bar Mitzvah No. 5," he says.

Not every Jew on SXM cares about organized religion. Cheryl Wallach, a New York transplant, moved here 26 years ago "to see if it would work."

It did. As she hosts, waitresses and orders food in her brightly colored Andy's and Cheryl's sandy lunch shack on Orient Beach, she bares her soul along with her shoulders.

"My religion is in me," she says, shrugging. "I celebrate Chanukah and Pesach, mostly with the traditional foods -- and candles. I go to New York every year for the High Holy days. I'm a first-generation American. I grew up with Yiddish and German, and I can still understand both."

Wallach could drive the short distance to Chabad; however, she works seven days a week, and is committed to her unaffiliated status. She said she misses recipes, not the Shema. If she only knew Jews who would share "old-country recipes," she could prepare the gefilte fish and red borscht with flanken of yore.

While historians agree that Jews sailed with Columbus to the New World -- and stayed -- few tangible records remain. Part-time island resident Dana Cohen-Sprott is researching Jewish history in the Caribbean. Her work led to the rediscovery last year of a Jewish burial ground behind a Radio Shack.

With no office or secretary, Chanowitz communicates via cell phone, e-mail and website:www.jewishsxm.com.

He notes that long-term plans include building a proper synagogue.

For now, though, it's Minchah and Ma'ariv. The Weissmans appear at 6:15 p.m. for the half-hour service.

They'll eat afterwards.

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