Most people go to Jamaica to relax, but Rabbi Yaakov Raskin and his wife Mushkee aren’t there to take it easy. As the first-ever permanent Chabad emissaries to the island nation famous for rum, reggae, and runners, they have been hard at work since last fall, serving the Jews who live and vacation there.
Like other Chabad emissaries sent to remote locations with few permanent Jewish residents but many Jewish tourists passing through (such as Kathmandu, Nepal, recently in the news following the devastating earthquake there), the Raskins are challenged with the task of catering—not only spiritually, but also literally in terms of kosher food— to a varied, far-flung community with few existing Jewish institutions.
The young couple, expecting their first child this summer, arrived in Montego Bay right before last Rosh Hashanah, in September 2014. Montego Bay is the city most tourists fly into, and it is also relatively close to island’s other major vacation destinations, such as Negril and Ocho Rios, where the large cruise ships dock. They are across the island from the capital of Kingston, where most of Jamaica’s approximately 200 permanent Jewish residents live.
Despite Rabbi Raskin’s being based in Montego Bay and busy with what he estimates to be the 100,000 Jewish vacationers passing through annually, he travels regularly all over the island seeking Jews to meet and try to bring closer to Judaism.
“There are 15 local Jews in the Montego Bay Area, 10 in Negril, 10 in Ocho Rios and two in Port Antonio,” Raskin told The Times of Israel on a recent visit to Jerusalem.
“And there are also three Jewish families in Mandeville,” added Mushkee, 23, who was in Israel with her husband.
The rabbi, 25, travels to Kingston once a week. While he told The Times of Israel that Chabad has been warmly welcomed in Jamaica, community leader and historian Ainsley Henriques indicated in an email that the reception has been somewhat chilly from the capital’s Jews. He noted that the community is lay-led at this point and some but not all of its Jews have been happy to see Chabad offer its services to the community.
This has more to do with Jamaican Jews’ history and complicated internal communal politics than with the Hasidic Jewish emissaries themselves, who Henriques called “an intrepid and really nice couple” and who he said are “doing an excellent job in Montego Bay.”
Chabad has sent rabbis to Jamaica for short stints over the past six decades. In fact, Rabbi Raskin’s grandfather was the first Chabad rabbi to visit the island in 1957. Despite this, the Jewish in-reach-oriented Hasidic movement, known for its presence in every corner of the world (including other Caribbean nations), had surprisingly opted not to put down permanent roots in Jamaica in the past.
Raskin said he knew of no particular reason why Chabad was only now sending a married couple to serve the Jews of Jamaica.
Henriques, too, did not offer a direct reply to this question. “The answer has to come from them,” he said, meaning Chabad. “They have been in and out of Kingston for years but I think they never felt totally welcome being the congregation that we are.”
The tiny, proud Kingston Jewish community is indeed unique. Jamaican Jews have a 350-year-old Jewish heritage and idiosyncratic traditions. The community is at this point centered at the historical and architecturally impressive Congregation Sha’are Shalom—one of only five existing sand-floor synagogues in the world.
The situation in Jamaica today is quite different from what it once was. Whereas currently the sole organized Jewish community is in Kingston and numbers only around 150, a century ago there were 1,500 Jews living in Jamaica. For hundreds of years before that, Jews of Sephardic origin lived in towns throughout the island. Additional Jews from England, Germany and the Ottoman Empire arrived over time. They established a number of congregations, and at one point there were 21 Jewish functioning cemeteries (today there are just two).
In Kingston, Jewish life revolves primarily around religious services at the synagogue. By contrast, Raskin, a third-generation Chabad emissary from Montreal, has taken Jewish practices and celebrations on the road all around the island. Using hotels meeting rooms and private villas (and even the island’s beaches) he has led religious services and holiday festivities wherever Jews are.
“We did: Hanukkah in Ocho Rios; Tu Bishvat in Kingston; Purim evening in Kingston and Purim day in Montego Bay; and Passover and Lag Ba’Omer in Montego Bay,” the rabbi said.
After returning to Jamaica from his trip to Israel, he was planning to head over to Ocho Rios to lead Shavuot celebrations.
As is the practice of most Chabad emissary couples, the Raskins have turned their home into a community center of sorts. On Fridays nights when they aren’t leading Shabbat observances at a larger venue, they entertain guests around their Chabad House dining table. During the week, locals and tourists drop in to learn how to don tefillin or to study Jewish texts with the rabbi, or to get instruction on how to bake challah from his wife.
Mushkee Raskin, who spent part of her childhood in Panama, where her parents were emissaries before returning to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to lead Chabad schools, said she enjoys the warm Caribbean climate.
Living in Jamaica does present some obstacles, but the Raskins said they don’t find them insurmountable. Since they have become the only source of kosher catering following the closure of a home-based business run by Israeli Vered Maoz in Kingston, they have spent a lot of time cooking and baking in their kitchen. They arrange for kosher products—especially meat, chicken and cheese—to be flown in from New York or Miami.
The couple has also had to get used to a more relaxed lifestyle and culture in which things move much more slowly than in Montreal or New York.
“This more relaxed attitude can be a good thing,” said the rabbi. “But it means that it takes time to get things done and you need to plan well ahead for every event.”
Although it is hard for a young couple, especially soon-to-be parents, to live far away from their family and familiar life, the Raskins said they feel very much at home in Jamaica, where they have found the people, like the sun, to be warm.
“We like to go where we are needed,” said the rabbi. “Every Jew is important, no matter how small or large the community is.”