Jewish Life in a Tropical Paradise

By February 1, 2022Hawaii, Jewish Travel

Maui’s Beit Shalom meeting the needs of Jewish residents and tourists in Hawaii

February 1, 2022

KIHEI, Maui – It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful setting for a Jewish house of worship than the one located in a quiet residential neighborhood at the corner of Alulike and Kaonoulu Streets in Kihei, Hawaii.

maui synagogue

Maui’s Beit Shalom, one of only two stand-alone synagogues in the Hawaiian Islands

Beit Shalom, a blue one-story building adorned with a large star of David on its roof fronted by a lush garden of flowers, is just a five-minute walk from the picturesque white-sand Kamaole Beach on Maalaea Bay, the longest uninterrupted stretch of beach on the island of Maui.

The tiny shul is home to the Jewish Congregation of Maui and is one of only two stand-alone synagogues in the entire Hawaiian Islands.

It’s a place where Jews living in paradise – joined by a steady stream of tourists — can maintain their Jewish identity, observe the holidays, and even celebrate the end of Shabbat with a Havdalah service right on the beach with Humpback whales swimming in the distance.

I recently visited Beit Shalom during a cruise to Hawaii on the Holland America Koningsdam.  Deciding to forego an array of Maui sightseeing tours offered to the ship’s passengers, I caught a local bus for a half-hour trip south from the port of Kapalua – where the Koningsdam was docked – to see the synagogue in Kihei.

There, I met Ellyn Mortimer, Beit’s Shalom’s executive director and — until recently — its only employee.  There had been a rabbi, renowned whale-researcher David Glickman, but he left the position in 2019.  Three years with no rabbi — not to mention the pandemic — has made it a challenging time for the congregation.

Ellyn Mortimer

Ellyn Mortimer, executive director of the Jewish Congregation of Maui, inside Beit Shalom’s small sanctuary

Finally, in late January 2022 the congregation hired a new rabbi, Hawaii-born Raanan Mallek.  Most recently, he led a congregation in Shorashim, Israel.

Rabbi Mallek was one of more than 100 applicants for the job.  If you’re a rabbi, you can do a lot worse than a post on Maui.

“I’m thrilled,” said Mortimer of Rabbi Mallek’s arrival.  “It’s leadership that a synagogue needs.  If we were a community center, it would be different.  But we’re a synagogue.”

It’s estimated that about 7,000 Jews live in the Hawaiian Islands.  Most are in Honolulu – home of Emanu-El — the only other synagogue in Hawaii besides Beit Shalom.  Emanu-El is a reform congregation located just six miles from the famed Waikiki Beach.  Additionally, there are several Chabad chapters in Hawaii and some small congregations that meet in hotels or rent space in churches.

Mortimer, who has lived in Maui for 27 years, says she thinks about 2,000 Jews live on the island; Maui has a total population of about 170,000.  Beit Shalom was established in the late 1990s and currently has about 150 members.  It’s unaffiliated and Mortimer says the level of religious observance is completely up to each individual.

“We welcome everybody,” she says.  “Basically, we ask that you don’t judge somebody’s path to Judaism, and they won’t judge your path to Judaism.”

Beit Shalom menorahs

Unique menorahs — with a Hawaiian flair — on display in the Beit Shalom sanctuary

Mortimer says that pre-COVID, about 20-30 people would typically turn up for Friday night services and there would be enough for a minyan on Shabbat morning.  During the busy winter months, up to 70 percent of attendees are tourists.  High-holiday services can attract as many as 130 people, making Beit Shalom’s small sanctuary “very crowded,” Mortimer says.

Originally constructed as a sales office to market surrounding properties, the synagogue features a kosher kitchen.  Not surprisingly, the specialty of the house is locally caught fresh fish — typically mahi-mahi or ahi tuna.

“We are fortunate to have some renowned chefs in our Jewish community who help with delicious preparation with local ingredients and local flare,” says Mortimer.

I was impressed with the sanctuary’s beautifully designed ner tamid — eternal flame.  Several unique Chanukah menorahs on display — with a Hawaiian flair — were created by artist and congregation board member Marge Bonar.  The synagogue has a small religious school that currently meets outdoors due to COVID.

In Maui, being able to hold religious classes outdoors is a treat — not an inconvenience.

Mortimer says it’s not unusual for tourists to drive by Beit Shalom, see the star of David, and knock on the door to find out if it’s really a synagogue.

“I love when people come and they’re surprised that there are Jews on Maui,” she says.  “It’s exciting for me as a director because it takes me back to our roots and why we’re actually here and why I’m doing this job.”

kihei

Maui’s beach on Maalaea Bay, just a five-minute walk from Beit Shalom

During the pandemic, Beit Shalom became a popular site for destination bar and bat mitzvahs – hosting at least a dozen.  If you’re going to gather for a religious ceremony and want it to be outdoors in a beautiful setting right on the beach, what better place than Maui?

“It’s whatever people want,” says Mortimer when I asked about the ceremonies involved with destination bar mitzvahs.  “Sometimes we do them here at the synagogue.  Sometimes we’ll do them at a location right on the ocean.  Because we’re pluralistic, we can give people what they want.  It’s more important that their ceremony is meaningful to them.  What do they want their child and their family to get out of it?”

With such an ethnically diverse population, Hawaii is known as a place that’s accepting of minority groups. The state twice elected a Jewish governor – Linda Lingle – who served in the position from 2002-2010.  Mortimer says the local Hawaiian population is inquisitive – but non-judgmental about Judaism.

It’s the same philosophy that forms the core of the Jewish Congregation of Maui’s mission.

“We’re not here to tell anybody how to be Jewish,” says Mortimer.  “We’re here to give people what they need to live their best Jewish life.”

Website for more info:
Jewish Congregation of Maui

                                                    © 2022 Dan Fellner