Travel through the Bronx and one can’t miss the Puerto Rican flags hanging from thousands of windows. Take in a baseball game and notice how many of the players have salsa hits as their walk-up songs. Then there is the biggest parade of them all on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. “New York’s connection to Puerto Rico runs deep,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said to his Puerto Rican counterpart Wanda Vázquez Garced on a visit last week.
Cuomo was in San Juan for Somos El Futuro, the annual conference aiming to advance the interests of New York’s Hispanic communities. He was joined at the event by many of the state’s Jewish communal leaders, seeking to strengthen ties between our community and Puerto Rican New Yorkers. “I’ve seen David Greenfield, Michael Miller, Yeruchim Silber, and Assemblyman David Weprin, among others,” said Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, the Chabad shaliach in Puerto Rico. “There’s also IsrAID, where Israel assists in rebuilding projects across the island and works with at-risk youth.”
The rebuilding follows the catastrophic devastation brought by Hurricane Maria in 2017 that left 3,000 dead and caused $90 billion in damage. The island’s vital tourism industry took years to recover, as fellow Americans in the States wondered when it would be safe to visit the island. Fortunately, I have many Puerto Rican coworkers who said that by now all the popular destinations have reopened, the roads have been repaired, and there is nothing to fear. With my mother-in-law visiting us this month, we wanted to take her someplace warm, and she’s already been to Florida.
Anyone who has a visa to be in the United States can fly to Puerto Rico without any additional travel requirements. Americans can leave their passports at home, relying on a federally recognized ID to take the 3.5-hour flight to San Juan, the island’s capital city. The Chabad of Puerto Rico is located in the Isla Verde neighborhood, a stretch of hotels and condos hemmed in by the airport and the ocean. The 11,000-square-foot synagogue was completed two years ago, a marble palace that serves as a one-stop shop for Jewish needs. It contains a small dairy restaurant, miniature supermarket in one room, classrooms, mikvah, a dining hall, and the beis k’neses. On a typical weekday, the minyan is comprised of stateside retirees, longtime residents, and Israeli newcomers who share a love for the island and the sense of community forged by Rabbi Mendel and his wife Rachel. They settled in Puerto Rico in 1999, opening the first Chabad House in the Caribbean.
“This location has synergy. The oceanfront has the added benefit of visitors, and together it assembles something much greater. It unites us as one big family,” Rabbi Zarchi said. “This synagogue was a sizable undertaking for a smaller community. There was a strong resolve to get it off the ground, and with a lot of faith.”
That resolve was tested by Hurricane Maria, which hit the island on Rosh HaShanah in 2017. “The new facility was built to weather such extreme storms with hurricane-proof windows, a backup generator, and water cistern,” Rabbi Zarchi said. “We were fortunate to have been able to use the facility as a shelter and a haven for so many.” In that time, the shaliach couple took on a humanitarian coordinating role, connecting Jewish volunteers to people and places on the island in need of assistance. “Every facet of daily living was paralyzed. The eyes of America were on Puerto Rico, and the Jewish community banded together in a tremendous way. It’s a testament to the Jewish people to make a kiddush Hashem. That was the idea of Avraham Avinu.”
The feeling of family at Chabad attracted a tight group of Israelis who settled in Puerto Rico for its climate and business opportunities. “We tried Chicago and Miami. It felt cold there. My husband went to Puerto Rico and told me to come,” said Shiran Hamo. “We have a food business in Caguas.” A year and a half ago, Hamo and her husband Shalom Gerby became parents. Their son Nitay had the rare bris milah at Chabad. “He is named after a judge in the Talmud.” Now a toddler, he was at the Chabad center last Wednesday for an even younger congregant, Jacob David Bialski, who received the honor as having the most recent bris milah on the island.
As often happens, there are Jews who leave Israel for distant corners of the Diaspora and reconnect with their heritage through Chabad. “There is great weather here, good vibes, and the rabbi is doing his best,” Yahav Hasson said. “The rabbi inspired me to wear t’filin and not eat outside. The Jews here are all good to each other.” Prior to San Juan, the Israeli-born kiosk operator lived in Los Angeles. His girlfriend will be converting to Judaism through a beis din in Florida.
“It’s the most common thing we come across,” Rabbi Zarchi said of Puerto Ricans interested in Judaism. “There’s a lot of interest in Jewish genealogy and a great number of converts. Our synagogue’s architect is Sifre; this name comes from the word sefer.” Stories of grandparents who lit candles on Fridays and avoided pork products are the result of the Spanish Inquisition, which brought Jewish refugees to the New World in search of religious freedom. The first provincial Inquisitor arrived shortly after the colony was established. Fearful of being outed as Jews, their descendants gradually assimilated while retaining some Jewish practices.
The ubiquitous crowing of roosters across Puerto Rico gives the morning brachos greater meaning, as does the brachah on rainbows, which can be seen almost daily after the short tropical rains.
Jews were able to practice their faith openly after the United States annexed the island in 1898. Their impact is visible in Doral Bank (founded by Salomon Levis), Pueblo Supermarkets (founded by brothers Harold, George, and Milton Toppel), and developer Jose Efron (whose name appears on an avenue in Dorado). Next to the capital, in Old San Juan, is a Holocaust memorial, on land donated by the government. In front of its steps, Chabad installs a menorah each year. “There are tax incentives offered towards opening a business here and that have attracted Jews to Puerto Rico. I’ve met older Jews who came here in the 1950s during Operation Bootstrap. I’ve also counted ten Russian Jewish families who arrived here in the past year,” Rabbi Zarchi said. He estimates the Jewish population in Puerto Rico at nearly 3,000 individuals.
Keeping kosher on the island isn’t difficult. Alongside the store operated by Chabad, supermarkets are filled with stateside products with hechsherim. On our vacation, we rented a home in Carolina, a suburb of San Juan that is a 15-minute drive from the synagogue. Planning a stress-free family trip is about satisfying each family member. The Plaza Carolina shopping mall, with its 161 stores, is a ten-minute drive from the Carolina Children’s Museum. While my wife and mother-in-law gave their contribution to the local economy, my children had a place to learn and play. Spanish is the spoken language, but nearly everyone in urban Puerto Rico understands English.
Keeping in mind the history of American colonialism and federal oversight of its budget, Puerto Ricans often complain about their relationship with Washington. At the same time, there is little desire for independence. The governor and the island’s delegate in Congress are advocating statehood as the solution to Puerto Rico’s economic problems and lack of political representation. Realistically, the island will likely remain a commonwealth for the foreseeable future.
An hour to the west of San Juan, the Cerro Gordo beach is a good place to leave grandmother with the children, while a half hour uphill, in Vega Baja, the parents hiked through the caves, underground streams, and natural pools. All of us enjoyed exploring the rainforest of El Yunque, San Felipe del Morro fortress in San Juan, and its Old City, driving across its interior mountains and the unspoiled Cabo Rojo beach at the island’s southwestern tip. After five days on la isla encanta, Florida appears flat and boring. “We’ll be coming back here again,” my wife said.
By Sergey Kadinsky