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Recovery underway six weeks after St Martin hurricane

Rabbi fears American Jews might stay away from hurricane-stricken island this winter when it needs their support the most

    The Caribbean island of Saint Martin was battered by repeated storms and hurricanes in September
    The Caribbean island of Saint Martin was battered by repeated storms and hurricanes in September Getty Images

    The Jewish centre on the storm-battered Caribbean island St Martin is up and running again, after its rabbi found himself in the thick of not one but two hurricanes.

    Their first Shabbat dinner at the St Martin Chabad House since Hurricane Irma took place earlier this month.

    “There was tremendous energy and everybody told their story from the storm,” Moishe Chanowitz, the rabbi who runs the house, told the JC.

    “It was a beautiful Shabbat and very exciting to get back in to shape.”

    Tourists and Americans with second homes on the island, who account for most of the visitors to Chabad, are staying away post-storm, but a crowd of almost two dozen local residents showed up.

    Rabbi Chanowitz, his wife Sara and their five children got through Irma unscathed after hunkering down in a ritual bath complex through the worst of the hurricane.

    The collection of sacred books used for synagogue and study sessions did not fare as well — and they have 15 large boxes of books, including volumes of Talmud, that are ruined.

    “We had two feet of water so all the bookcases are being thrown out and a lot of books are damaged,” said Rabbi Chanowitz, adding that the pile is so large that to bury them as required by Jewish law he needs to hire a digger.

    “It’s upsetting but when you put it against the backdrop that nobody was hurt and torah scrolls are okay, it’s not so big,” he commented.

    Rabbi Chanowitz and wife Sara
    Rabbi Chanowitz and wife Sara

    When Rabbi Chanowitz hosted a meal at the Chabad House last weekend, it marked a return to normality that he had actually planned for a month earlier.

    He was determined after the worst of Irma to hold Rosh Hashanah prayers and meals, and to this end flew to Puerto Rico just before the festival to get supplies.

    “I had everything needed for the chag, including catered food and even batteries for electricity, but then I got stuck,” he said.

    Hurricane Maria had struck, and he was again in the centre of the devastation. Now experienced at dealing with hurricanes, he helped the Chabad rabbi there to pack up his centre to keep important items safe, and then attempted to get back to St Martin.

    “I tried everything, even chartering a plane, but I couldn’t get there,” he said. “It was very frustrating.”

    He found a flight to America instead, stayed there through the chagim season and returned home last week. Two Israelis kept his centre running, and one of them blew the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

    Since the rabbi returned, he has been helping local organisations including hospitals, and getting his centre back on track. He did not have insurance, but damage was limited to about $30,000 (£22,790).

    “It’s been draining,” he said. “And now everyone is trying to get things done, to start fixing, but you can’t find workers to fix things.”

    He will get the work done, but his concern is who will benefit from the place once fixed up.

    The Chabad house is normally full of life in the winter when Jewish Americans with second homes on the island arrive, but he expects many of them to give this season a miss.

    “Because of the storm we’ll be missing seeing them for a whole year,” he said.

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