The rabbi on a Caribbean island battered by Hurrican Irma insisted on staying put after his family was airlifted out, in order to help the injured — Jews and non-Jews.
Moishe and Sara Chanowitz, who run the Chabad House on St Martin, got through the worst of the hurricane by hunkering down in a ritual bath complex with their five children. “We closed the door and held on tight,” Rabbi Chanowitz said. “If we hadn’t gone there the doors would have blown off our home with us inside and everything would have blown around, including us.”
The privacy concerns that guide mikva-building helped to keep the family safe in an area where an estimated one in three buildings were destroyed. The ritual bath room is windowless for the sake of the modesty of those using it.
Power and the internet went down, but when the Chanowitzs managed to get their phones working they contacted friends and colleagues, asking for help getting the children to safety.
While the couple was trying to keep the children calm, officials from Chabad, volunteers from the Orthodox-run rescue organisation Zaka, Israeli diplomats and the Military Attache in Holland were all frantically messaging each other, trying to find a plane for the family.
This was last Friday. Many of those involved are Orthodox, and in their time zones, already marking Shabbat. They do not normally use phones on Sabbath, but made an exception. “This was a classic case of the rule in Jewish law that rescuing a life takes precedence over the rules of Shabbat,” Zaka Chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav said.
Shortly before Shabbat began on St Martin, the Chanowitz children were given places on an American aid plane to Puerto Rico. Their mother went with them, but their father refused, saying that with more than 300 Jews still on the island, as well as thousands of non-Jews, he needed to remain there.
“When it comes to humanitarian aid we don’t differentiate,” said Rabbi Chanowitz.
He started Shabbat by hosting a meal for anyone who wanted, and was joined by 14 people — four of them Jewish. There was not much to eat, just challah and gefilte fish, but the atmosphere was uplifting. “It was the first meal since the hurricane for most people,” he said. “Everybody was giving each other strength, we were encouraging each other, and people looked to me for some inspiration.”
The rest of Shabbat was mostly spent in a medical centre, looking for Jewish people who were on the island, comforting and helping them — and offering them gefilte fish.
As he was at the hospital, volunteers from Zaka in Israel received a call from a group of eight Jewish tourists, including medical students, from the US and Canada who were stranded on the island.
Again, the volunteers applied the rule that all Shabbat laws can be put aside to help those in danger, and secured them places on aid planes.
Rabbi Chanowitz is still on St Martin, where many are surprised that the death count did not rise higher than four. He said that the scenes are tough to absorb but said he is uplifted by the sense that almost everyone “has a miracle story to tell about their survival.”