When Rabbi Ahron and Chaya Blasberg, co-directors of the newly opened Chabad of Aruba, moved from New York to the Caribbean Island last year, their outreach work began as soon as their plane took off.
“We were traveling on Dec. 25, and the plane was full of Jews heading to Aruba for vacation,” explains Chaya Blasberg. “People kept stopping to chat with us.” The Blasbergs even landed their first Shabbat dinner guests—two young women from New York’s Upper East Side—before the plane touched down.
Aruba is the eighth Caribbean Island to get a permanent Chabad presence, joining a network that includes Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Maarten, Martinique, Grenada and the Cayman Islands. Located off the coast Venezuela, it has a population of about 100,000, and is known for its dry climate and strong trade winds. Aruba has a small permanent Jewish presence, but each year welcomes thousands of Jewish tourists, largely from the United States and Venezuela, many of them repeat visitors.
Its logo—“One Happy Island”—not only keeps people coming back, but represents the way the Blasbergs have taken on their work, and is an apt backdrop for the kind of community they are trying to reach and create.
Many Contacts in First Week
Rabbi Blasberg says that becoming shluchim—or Chabad emissaries—was a life goal for the couple, who married in 2010 and now have two children: Menny, 3, and Leah, 1.
Neither is new to Jewish outreach. Chaya Blasberg, 25, grew up in England, where her parents, Rabbi Yirmiyahu and Shoshana Angyalfi, are co-directors of Chabad of Leeds. Rabbi Blasberg, 28, who was born in New York and grew up in Israel, had traveled to far-flung places like Nepal and South Africa as a rabbinical student.
As the couple began researching potential locations, they were drawn to Aruba, where Chabad rabbis had been visiting periodically for more than two decades under the auspices of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. With guidance from Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, director of Chabad of Puerto Rico, who serves as point man for Jewish life on the Caribbean Islands since his arrival in 1999, and Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos, the Blasbergs visited Aruba several times in 2013, getting to know the lay of the land, and meeting with local residents and tourists.
“The Blasbergs have shown great courage, determination and perseverance in tackling one of the smaller Jewish communities in the Caribbean,” notes Zarchi. “They’ve exhibited the capacity to maximize the potential of Jewish life in Aruba by unifying its different Jewish energies, through the local population and visitors to the island.”
And they soon found a friend a high place: Aruban Prime Minister Mike Eman, who is Jewish, met with them during one of their early visits, encouraging them to establish a permanent center on the island.
“As we were telling the prime minister our plans, he responded enthusiastically: ‘Stop thinking and start doing!’ ” recalls Rabbi Blasberg.
Taking the prime minister’s words to heart, the couple decided to move to Aruba this past December—several months ahead of schedule and without firm housing plans—in order to catch the busiest part of the winter tourist season.
“There was no time to wait. We knew Aruba would be full of Jewish tourists, and we wanted to be there, too,” says the rabbi. They found a last-minute apartment rental near Aruba’s popular high-rise hotel strip, where they immediately began catching the notice of Jewish vacationers.
“As we walked down the strip, it seemed like every other person was Jewish,” Chaya Blasberg says. “People would look at my husband in his black hat, and stop us to ask with surprise: ‘Is Chabad in Aruba?’ We made many contacts just that first week.”
The Blasbergs set up operations in a storefront space near the hotel strip, where they now host Shabbat services, holiday events and other programming. They also received a Torah scroll from the Jaffa Family Foundation, which has given similar gifts to other Chabad centers in the Caribbean. And the Caribbean-based jewelry company Diamonds International has been a generous supporter of Chabad of Aruba.
‘A Very Positive Energy’
Smadar Bar, a New Yorker who has been visiting Aruba several times a year with her husband for the past 13 years, says it is “unbelievable what they have achieved in just six months.”
Indeed, spring brought a spate of nearly unceasing activity for the Blasbergs. They hosted more than 100 people over the two nights of Passover, with both locals and tourists taking part in the seders. Importing kosher-for-Passover food from Miami, they also conscripted visiting family members to transport matzah and other supplies in their suitcases.
Lag BaOmer was celebrated with a bonfire on the beach, and Shavuot featured festive meals and an ice-cream party. And in early June, the Blasbergs shared a special simcha with their new community: their young son Menny’s upsherin, the traditional first haircut held on a boy’s third birthday. Prime Minister Eman was an honored guest, even snipping off a lock of Menny’s hair.
Darren Gad, a businessman originally from New York and who has lived in Aruba for 16 years, often attends Shabbat services and studies Jewish topics at Chabad of Aruba.
“They bring a very positive energy,” Gad says of the Blasbergs. “They both have this affability, kindness, generosity and unimposing nature about them that makes people like them immediately.”
Bar also notes the welcoming environment at Chabad. “Sometimes, people come in to Shabbat services straight from the beach, wearing flip-flops.” And, she contends, they are not made to feel out of place.
Not at all, says Rabbi Blasberg, noting that kind of approachable atmosphere is enmeshed with Aruba’s laid-back tropical charm, and contributes to visitors’ willingness to try new Jewish encounters. “When people go on vacation, they want a break from normal life, and so they’re often more open to new experiences,” he says. “Even that short week can give a strong opportunity for a positive connection.”
As the summer rolls on, there seems to be little rest on the horizon for the Blasbergs. Plans for the near future include building a mikvah (a Jewish ritual bath), a permanent synagogue and setting up kosher catering services on the island, which for some time now has been a popular wedding destination and honeymoon spot.
Chaya Blasberg pronounces that even Menny and Leah have been working hard at reaching out to people on the island.
“One of Menny’s favorite games,” she says, “is pretending to speak on the telephone, inviting people to come for Shabbat!”