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St.Maarten Builds on its Jewish Heritage

by Melanie Reffes

The Caribbean has a surprisingly rich Jewish heritage. Jews first settled on the then Danish-ruled island of St. Thomas in 1655, the British encouraged Jewish settlement in Barbados where there is a thriving community today, Nevis had a prosperous Jewish community in the 17th century, Jamaica’s synagogue is a popular tourist attraction, Curacao’s synagogue is the oldest in the Western hemisphere and on Aruba, Jewish history dates back more than two centuries.
St. Maarten
The island of St. Maarten too has its share of Jewish heritage. Jews first came to the island as refugees from the Spanish Inquisition, and the community grew during the 16th and 17th centuries. The lone synagogue was abandoned in 1781 and later destroyed by a hurricane.

As they say, the past is prologue, and last month saw the opening of the first synagogue on the island since the 18th century. The synagogue, which is part of a new Chabad Center operated by Rabbi Moshe and Sara Chanowitz, occupies a 1,200-square-foot office space that once housed a church.

The Chanowitzes moved to the Dutch side of the Caribbean island in 2009 to serve its Jewish residents. Although the Jewish community in St. Maarten is small with just two-hundred families and students studying in the medical school, it is also a favorite holiday destination for thousands of Jewish visitors and an important piece of the Jewish history of the Caribbean.

With a newly-arrived Rabbi, Jewish traditions are now a lively slice of St. Maarten’s multi-cultural pie.  Following the arrival of Rabbi Moishe Chanowitz, his wife Sara and their children in 2009, St. Maarten became the fourth island in the Caribbean, after Puerto Rico, St. Thomas and Dominican Republic, to host a Rabbi from Chabad House – an organization with more than 4,000 emissary families around the world.  A Hebrew acronym standing for chachmah or wisdom, binah or comprehension and da'at or knowledge, Chabad dates back to the 1940's.

“In addition to his dynamic energy Rabbi Chanowitz is multi-lingual and comfortable communicating in French and Hebrew, as well as in English,” says Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, who directs Chabad throughout the Caribbean.

Born in Maryland with time spent in Los Angeles, Paris and New York, the Rabbi is now enjoying life on a tropical island. “We got used to the power shutting down every now and then,” he smiles. “But when it happens on a Friday afternoon during Shabbat cooking preparations, you can imagine what's left of our Shabbat dinner menu. We've learned to go with the flow.”

With open arms, the Rabbi hosts an array of events from candle-lighting ceremonies to holiday celebrations. “Be a tourist or a local, our doors are open to all, “he says, referring to Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner. The Rabbi calls the dinner “An Island in time on an Island in Paradise” and features a traditional menu flavored with a tropical twist.

Big Ups for the New Synagogue

Living in St. Maarten since 1993, Dana Cohen Sprott has been researching Caribbean Jewish history for twenty-five years and lectures on the Jews of the Caribbean. She’s also a powerhouse in the Jewish community and championed the arrival of the Rabbi.
St. Maarten
 “With the community from the Dutch and the French side, a Rabbi serves as an invaluable focal point from where to buy kosher food to Shabbat dinner and holiday services.”

With unbridled enthusiasm, Sprott says records indicate an island Jewish presence that dates to 1732 and a large American-Jewish clientele during the first wave of tourism during the 1960’s. “Sonesta Great Bay was originally the St. Maarten Isle Hotel  run by the Concord  Hotel of  Catskill Borscht Belt fame, “ she says, “The Sonesta Maho was originally The Concord Hotel and both hosted gambling junkets from New York that filled the rooms and had a kosher kitchen as part of their design.” 

Also applauding the Rabbi’s arrival, Moshe Hakimi has lived in St. Maarten for seventeen years and is managing director of Diamonds International, one of the largest jewelry retailers in the world with nine stores in St. Maarten. ‘The more people know about our history, the more tourism will benefit, “observes the Israeli-born jeweler and businessman, “Tourists can meet our Rabbi, celebrate holidays and host Bar Mitzvahs and weddings. My Jewish-ness is very important to me and I’m happy to share it with visitors to St. Maarten.”

At the Guavaberry Emporium in Phillipsburg, Irish-born Frank Mullen is often asked about St. Maarten’s Jewish past. “The Emporium is in a Dutch Creole cedar house that was built on the site of a synagogue abandoned in 1781, we are told,” he says, pouring a sample of the potent drink made from oak-aged rum and wild guavaberries.”

 Despite the growing interest in Jewish history, St. Maarten does not yet have a kosher restaurant although it boasts more than three-hundred eateries that dish up a tantalizing selection of global cuisines. “It’s new for us but we have kosher items like wine, beef and chicken,” says  Pawan Sawlenie, floor manager at the Gourmet Marche in Simpson Bay, one of several supermarkets stocking kosher food.  “Tourists in villas or timeshares are happy when they find out they can buy kosher food on island.”

Looking towards the future, Rabbi Chanowitz says Chabad St. Maarten is rolling out the welcome mat to both St. Maarteners and visitors to her sandy shores. “We are here to spread the warmth of Judaism and to offer an authentic Jewish experience to all.”

For more information visit www.jewishsxm.com