Japanese teens wearing coral orange flip flops and matching “hang loose” Hawaii t-shirts over their swim trunks careen out of the elevator of the Ala Moana Hotel on their way to Honolulu’s famed Waikiki beach. They breeze by Chabad of Honolulu’s lobby level synagogue, located behind the hotel hair salon, without pausing. But the contents within the floor to ceiling glass walls of Chabad’s space in the popular beachside inn would startle them.
Alongside the strip of sand where flaming tiki lamps and tourist kitsch shops predominate, Honolulu Chabad has carved out a niche of spiritual serenity with all the accoutrements of a mainland synagogue: a velvet draped Torah ark, charity boxes, and stacks upon stacks of prayer books. For nearly eighteen years, this has been the mission of Rabbi Itchel and Pearl Krasnjansky: to build a Chabad community around the quirks presented by living in an island paradise.
“Because we are so physically remote here it promotes spiritually isolation,” said Pearl Krasnjansky. “The beauty of Hawaii is what we have to contend with. It’s easy to be apathetic about Judaism when you are busy with sun and surf.”
Four floors up from the lobby prayer space, Chabad’s day school is in post-lunch mode. Preschoolers Zehava Brazna, Ora Devorah Weinberger and Yisroel Dov Ber Krasnjansky curl up on a foam mat as their teacher, Esther Zaguri reads them a Jewish story book. The hotel suite’s lights have been flicked off to give their classroom nook a cozy cool naptime feeling.
Zaguri, who graduated a Chabad seminary, is from Brazil. She’s pitching in to teach in Honolulu for a while and will step up her role when Nechama Marcus, who has spent the past few years in Hawaii, returns to her Long Beach, California, home. Marcus’s Hebrew school classroom, which serves 30 local kids, is just beyond a sheet of bamboo blinds, improvised room dividers in the hotel space.
Chabad of Honolulu’s hotel home is a concession to the realities of their hotspot location. Office space in the beach’s hotel strip is hard to come by and astronomically expensive. Finding spare rooms in a hotel is much more practical, especially since the new owner of the Ala Moana Hotel, real estate developer Sonny Kahn of Crescent Heights properties, is friendly with Rabbi Krasnjansky. “For the first couple of years we had Chabad in our house and then in a strip mall near our home, and we got maybe ten percent of the tourists that we are getting now,” said Krasnjansky.
The hotel hideaway is not the only unusual locale used by the Honolulu Chabad. Their communal Passover seder took place at Washington Place, the historic home of Hawaii’s governors. Hawaii’s Governor Linda Lingle is Jewish and a familiar face at Chabad.
“Before the governor had officially declared her candidacy, she stopped by our seder to say hello,” said Krasnjansky. “My husband had already had four cups of wine and introduced her as the next governor of Hawaii. It was common knowledge that she was going to run, but it was unspoken.”
Lingle took the introduction with good humor, and then Rabbi Krasnjansky continued: “ ‘And next year we’ll have the seder in the governor’s mansion.’ Six months later, when Governor Lingle got elected, she called my husband and asked, ’Rabbi when are we going to start planning the seder.’”
Turning a government kitchen into a kosher for Passover one took days of preparation. Buying real china and cutlery classy enough for the mansion required a hefty investment. “It was a lot of work but it was worth it especially because there were people there who would not normally step foot in the Chabad house,” said Krasnjansky.
Getting politicians comfortable with Chabad’s brand of Jewish warmth and observance is all in a day’s work for the Krasnjanskys who open Chabad’s doors for everyone including the planeloads of Jewish tourists who visit the Hawaiian islands each year.
“We see ourselves very much as ambassadors to Chabad and as representatives of the Lubavitcher Rebbe,” said Krasnjansky.
Some guests turn to Chabad for guidance with observing the mitzvah of mikveh, immersion in a ritual bath. Though plans for a more traditional mikveh are a longtime dream of Chabad of Honolulu that may soon be fulfilled, as of now, there are no indoor mikvehs on the island and it’s up to Pearl to shepherd guests through the novel experience of using a beach as a mikveh. She cites a passage in Genesis that states “G-d’s spirit hovered upon the water,” as a reason why the natural setting gives most ocean-mikveh goers a strong sense of spirituality.
Congregant Shoshana Hannemann, a 30-year Hawaii resident, agrees. After her youngest son passed away, Hannemann dreamt that he urged her to go to the mikveh. “When I did do it, I brought a candle to the beach, did the whole preparation and immersed,” said Hannemann. “Three days later, when I thought about my son, it was the first time that I did not have a horrible aching hole in my heart.”
Pearl’s deep tan complexion would be the envy of her sallow sun-starved mainland peers, but she does not swim on the public beaches because it trespasses Jewish modesty codes. Counting 18 years in Hawaii, the island’s sun-and-fun attitude hasn’t changed the Krasnjanskys’ focus on their mission to bring Jews back to their roots–no matter how deep those roots are buried in Hawaiian sun-kissed sand.