Bermuda set to get its first rabbi
The appointment of Bermuda’s first permanent rabbi has been hailed as a “win” for the island as well as its Jewish community.
The resident who helped to bring about the arrival of Rabbi Chaim Birnhack and his wife, Menuchy, said that the move will boost the profile of the island for Jewish travellers, drawing more tourists from gateway cities in the United States close to the island with significant Jewish populations.
Brett Lefkowitz, an Orthodox Jew who works for the Ministry of Health, told The Royal Gazette: “It’s a very nice way to help the community in Bermuda, and hopefully develop tourism and attract more and more people.”
The couple’s arrival, which is still subject to immigration approval, marks the founding of a permanent Chabad House in Bermuda.
Chabad-Lubavitch is a global Orthodox Hasidic Jewish movement known for its outreach to Jewish communities worldwide, including Bermuda.
Dr Lefkowitz, a health disaster co-ordinator for the Government, said that the group was “a good brand name — it is known for being non-judgmental, caring and accepting, and not strict”.
“They’re very open. It’s a facility that can attract people.”
He said that having a Chabad House could improve access to kosher catering and food in Bermuda, which in turn could prove a draw with events such as Jewish weddings.
“There are very few places in the world as beautiful as Bermuda,” Dr Lefkowitz said. “I think this is something that could go from strength to strength.”
Bermuda’s Jewish community and the history of Judaism on the island were covered in The Jerusalem Post, which reported on Wednesday on the appointment of Bermuda’s first full-time rabbi.
“Bermuda has a population of approximately 65,000 residents, of whom 500 are believed to be Jewish, according to the worldwide Jewish movement,” the Post stated. “The island also hosts many Jewish tourists every year.”
The establishment of the island’s first Chabad House by Rabbi Chaim and Menuchy Birnhack comes after “decades of regular visits by Chabad Roving Rabbis”.
The island’s Jewish community is described as “egalitarian”, while the Chabad representatives are expected to run “an Orthodox community, open to all types of Jews, as it does worldwide”.
Bringing the Birnhacks to the island was undertaken independently of the Jewish Community of Bermuda group, a charity serving the island’s comparatively small pool of Jewish residents.
The Birnhacks were invited after Dr Lefkowitz noted the founding in 2013 of a Chabad House serving Cayman.
The couple paid a visit to Bermuda last year and are now seeking accommodation for themselves as well as their Chabad House.
Dr Lefkowitz said there was irony in taking inspiration from Cayman.
“It seems we are always measuring ourselves against Cayman — there is a flourishing community there.”
The Caribbean hosts several Jewish communities, while Bermuda has traditionally catered to a smaller population.
In the 17th century, the island brought in discriminatory laws against Jewish merchants, and in the 1960s Bermuda was reputedly less than welcoming to Jewish travellers.
Dr Lefkowitz, whose religious affiliation is easily spotted by his traditional skullcap, said that he found people in Bermuda “very respectful” and interested in his faith.
He added: “I think the potential is huge in terms of developing the community here, and furthering tourism from North America.
“Look at the geography — cities like New York, Boston and Miami, which have large Jewish communities, are just a few hours away by air.
“If we can help to build up our community here, I think this is going to be a big step forward.”
US author and historian Deborah Levine, the editor of American Diversity Report, spent part of her childhood in Bermuda.
Ms Levine said that having a full-time rabbi on the island would mark a significant change.
“It would have been very difficult back in the day to have supported an Orthodox Jewish community in Bermuda, since there wasn’t anything kosher,” she said.
“There were limited opportunities to bring in a rabbi. We usually imported one for Passover to conduct the Seder, but other than that I do not recall — maybe sometimes for High Holy Days.”
Ms Levine’s family extended across four generations in Bermuda: she is the granddaughter of the late Myer Malloy, Bermuda's first real estate agent, and her great-grandfather was Alter Malloy, who emigrated from Russia.
The US, Canadian and British military presence on the island significantly boosted its Jewish population, which dwindled after the US Naval Air Station at the East End closed in 1995.
“Back in the day, it was not quite so invisible. My grandfather was a total party animal — he knew everybody; he was very extroverted.”
Ms Levine, who has researched and documented Jewish life in Bermuda, said she would be interested to watch how the arrival of the Birnhacks unfolded.
She added: “I hope to hear more about it as it develops.”