Turks and Caicos rabbi spreads Chanukah cheer on horseback
October 4, 2022
PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos – A horseback-riding, kippah-wearing, menorah-toting, bearded Hasidic rabbi galloping around a tropical beach seems as out of place as a lobster roll on the menu at a New York deli.
Yet if you’re on a Caribbean cruise during the Chanukah season and happen to stop on Grand Turk Island, be ready to say a hearty “chag urim sameach” to Shmulik Berkowitz, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi who has created the first Jewish beachhead in the Turks and Caicos, an archipelago about 600 miles southeast of Miami.
During a recent visit to Providenciales, the most developed and populous island in Turks and Caicos, I visited the Chabad House that Berkowitz and his wife Chaya established three years ago, just a few months before the global pandemic started. “Provo,” as its known by the locals, is home to numerous high-end resorts and one of the world’s most acclaimed beaches.
The Berkowitzes and their two children live at the Chabad House, which is located in a villa two blocks from Providenciales’ main thoroughfare, Grace Bay Road. There, I learned why this energetic and enthusiastic young rabbi originally from Los Angeles periodically takes a 15-minute flight from Providenciales to Grand Turk Island where the cruise ships dock.
“It’s a nice way to spread Chanukah cheer,” he said, recalling with a smile the first time he greeted passengers in Grand Turk arriving on cruise ships sailing out of Florida. “People were very excited. I had the menorahs, I was saying ‘happy Chanukah.’ There were many Jewish people on the cruise ships that day so it was perfect.”
With the opening of the Turks and Caicos branch, Chabad now has 15 centers in the Caribbean, including two on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. The week before my visit, Berkowitz attended a conference in Cancun, Mexico, with the other rabbis who lead Chabad chapters in the region.
The Berkowitzes are both from families that have served as Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries for generations. They first arrived in Providenciales in 2019, three weeks after the birth of their first child, Sholom. They were brought to the island under the auspices of Rabbi Mendel Zarchi in Puerto Rico, who founded the first permanent Chabad House in the Caribbean in 1999.
When the Berkowitzes first got to Turks and Caicos, there was no organized Jewish community and just about 50 year-round Jewish residents.
“There was nothing,” Berkowitz says. “We were the first Jewish infrastructure on the island. Baruch hashem, we’ve seen a lot of blessings since we’ve moved down. So thank G-d, the community has really come together.”
In his first week on the island, the rabbi organized a Chanukah celebration on nearby Grace Bay Beach, named earlier this year by TripAdvisor as the best beach in the world. About 100 people showed up for the menorah-lighting.
“That was our green light that we made the right move,” he says.
Since then, the Berkowitzes hosted 80 people for Passover seder in a giant tent and a “Purim on the Sea” event, at which 50 celebrants were taken by boat to a floating platform in Grace Bay for food, prayers, singing and dancing.
Turks and Caicos Islands is a British Overseas Territory in the Atlantic Ocean consisting of 40 islands and cays, only eight of which are inhabited.
Providenciales, which has a population of about 23,000, is home to Turks and Caicos’ only international airport. Direct flights are offered from 11 North American cities, including New York, Miami and Toronto.
Berkowitz says the local population – 70 percent of whom are Protestant — has been “very respectful” of the small Jewish presence on the island, adding that several government officials have even come for Shabbat meals.
“There’s definitely no anti-Semitism,” he says. “It’s a religious island. Every block there’s another church. On Sundays there are no cars in the streets.”
In addition to holding holiday services and events, Berkowitz has established an adult education program, a once-a-week Hebrew school during the winter months (5-10 students attended classes last year), and hosts weekly four-course “Shabbat in Paradise” dinners.
“Shabbat over here is always a mix – locals, tourists, people that own second homes here,” he says. “It’s a beautiful mix of people from all over the world.”
Eventually, Berkowitz hopes to have a mikvah built and perhaps even a stand-alone synagogue. There are concrete plans in place for a “Welcome Center” on Grace Bay Road that the rabbi says should open in “the coming months.”
In Turks and Caicos, there is no regular bus service and taxis are expensive. So I took a “jitney” – the way locals get around – to get from the resort at which I was staying — Beaches, an all-inclusive resort that can accommodate up to 3,000 guests at a time — to the Chabad House.
Taking a jitney is basically like hitchhiking – the cars aren’t marked and you just stick out your hand until one pulls over. It cost me $2 for the five-minute drive.
Once I arrived, Berkowitz showed me around the villa, which includes a courtyard for a sukkah, a small sanctuary connected to the dining room, and plenty of freezer space to store kosher meat and dairy products flown in from Miami.
During the week I visited in mid-September – the peak of hurricane season (Hurrican Fiona hit Turks and Caicos a few days after I left) and thus a slow time for tourism — there were still enough worshippers for a minyan each day to say the morning prayers.
Before I left, Berkowitz gave me an eye-catching memento – a turquoise kippah, designed to match the color of the water in nearby Grace Bay.
As for living in such an idyllic setting, building a Jewish community on the island with Chaya and raising a family, the rabbi says it’s all been a huge blessing.
“Everyone has their mission,” he says. “Turks and Caicos was the place that we were able to have as our Chabad to bring the light of Torah and the light of G-d to this island and everyone coming through. It’s a very special opportunity. And we hope to continue taking things to the next level.”
Website for more info:
Chabad of Turks & Caicos
© 2022 Dan Fellner