Rolling green hills, lush tropical foliage and picturesque beaches of St. George, Grenada, create a landscape of scenic beauty and tranquility, about as far removed as one can get from the frantic pace of the twenty first century.
The capital city of this small Caribbean country is also home to some 1500 students from across the US to study at St. George’s University. Students, who typically stay for 3-4 semesters at St George’s, enjoy a paradise quiet and conducive to academic study.
But paradise alone, some of them will tell you, is not enough.
Ten years ago, a group of Jewish medical students doing a brief stint at St. George’s wrote to various Jewish organizations in the US with requests for support and Jewish resources. Their response came from Lubavitch World Headquarters in New York, in the form of two young rabbis sent down to conduct services for the high holidays.
Since then, student Rabbis in groups of two or three arrive periodically to create what one student at St. George’s calls “a Jewish oasis” with prayer services, Seders and holiday celebrations for Grenada’s Jewish students.
Approximately 50 of them are enrolled in St. George’s this year; most from backgrounds with little or no connection to Judaism. “Aside for the incongruity of a Jewish celebration on the island, for most of the Jewish students here, a Jewish celebration anywhere would be unfamiliar,” says Shmiel Mahgerefteh, an Iranian-born, LA based student completing an 18 month stint on the island this June, “The last thing most of them expect to find here is a Jewish presence.”
But a curious thing happens with the arrival of young Chabad Rabbis who bring the Jewish students together in a celebration of their faith: “People are very open to Judaism out here on the Island,” says Mahgerefteh, who coordinates Jewish activities with the young Rabbis during their stay, and afterwards, in their absence. “Maybe when you feel so far from home, there’s a need to connect spiritually.” This Passover, fifty students at St. George’s participated in a lively, joyous Seder; for many of them, it was their first experience of one, says Rabbi Levi Kotlarsky, one of the three young rabbis who spent the holiday in Grenada.
Rabbi Mendel Zarchi director of Chabad of Puerto Rico, has been coordinating Grenada’s Jewish activities since his arrival in the Caribbean four years ago. He says the developments in places like Grenada are typical of Chabad’s efforts, particularly in that part of the world. “It’s a matter of seeking out every Jew, no matter where they are, and giving them the opportunity to celebrate Jewishly,” he says. In the Caribbean, the effort takes on a new meaning, as the areas reached are even more remote, where absolutely nothing exists in the way of Jewish life.
The same is true of the quiet Caribbean island of Dominica, where 40 Jewish students study at Ross University, an American medical school with a student body of 1000. Like Grenada, the only rabbis on the island are the Chabad students who visit one or twice a year to conduct High Holiday and Passover celebrations. This year, a crowd of 50, among them Jewish students, faculty, and Peace Corps volunteers serving on the island joined two young rabbis from New York for a lively Seder, regular holiday services and meals. Jennifer Ross, a Jewish student from Chicago who describes Dominica as conducive to “everything academic and nothing Jewish,” says the atmosphere created by the Seders and services was “incredible.”
“This is a time when you can really get homesick,” she says, “But having a Seder here felt like being part of your own Jewish family.”
An encounter with Judaism in the Caribbean, says Shmiel Mahgerefteh, is probably the last thing American Jewish students expect from their year abroad. But for the hundreds who have been touched by the small Jewish oasis created over the years, it’s an encounter that leaves an indelible impression, lasting long after their year in paradise is over.