Earlier this month, I traveled to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands for a week-long family vacation. Before leaving my home in Dallas, I contacted the Rabbi Shimon Moch, the spiritual leader at Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, and inquired about coming to Shabbat services while I was there.
With just over 110 members units, Hebrew Congregation is small in size but large in passion, and its community is very welcoming to those who are vacationing in the islands. With a real pride in the history of their community, its members are quick to let you know that their congregation is the oldest Reform congregation under the United States flag. Upon hearing of my visit, Rabbi Moch and president Carol Moore welcomed me with open arms and offered me time on their bimah to share comments and greetings from the URJ with the rest of the congregation.
On the drive from my hotel to the synagogue, Rabbi Moch gave me an informal historical tour of the island, telling me of the Jewish roots of the congregation and of the social hall that sits across the street. As we traveled along the beautiful Caribbean, driving the winding, hilly road and passing the famed “Bridge to Nowhere,” I listened to Rabbi Moch’s history lesson with an appreciation for his knowledge of names, dates, and details. The congregation is listed as a historical monument, and the tourist bureau lists it as a must-see place to visit when on the island. The synagogue is often used for destination weddings and sustains itself not only through its own community but by the generosity of the many individuals who have visited the congregation.
When we arrived at the synagogue prior to services, Rabbi Moch proudly opened the ark to show me the beautiful scrolls housed inside. Though many of Hebrew Congregation’s members return to the mainland for the summer, a substantial group attended the service and oneg that followed. The sanctuary is not air-conditioned, and summer worshippers sit close to the strategically placed fans that keep the sacred space comfortable. I never found myself uncomfortable, though. With the ocean breezes, the warm and welcoming community, and the sanctuary floor covered in sand, it all felt just right. From the time I climbed the steps to the sanctuary, the sense of mysticism and the aura of holiness I experienced was similar to those I observed in Tfzat – and I knew this special opportunity was one I would long remember.
The service was filled with music and prayer, a celebration of a returning couple whose daughter had attended the URJ camp in Georgia, a message from their new president, and a memorial of those who had suffered through recent tragedies in the US and the Israeli athletes who had perished during the Munich Olympics. It was a true understanding that as Jews, being remote does not mean being isolated and that we can find the warmth of Shabbat anywhere.
This congregation, with its opened doors and windows, is the Abraham’s tent where travelers are welcomed, fed, and engaged as they pass through. I hope anyone who finds their way to the Virgin Islands will step inside the tent and find the same warmth and welcome that I experienced.