Rabbi Asher Federman and his wife Henya, a Milwaukee native, were willing to move anywhere in the world after they got married. They just wanted to serve the Jewish people.
“We Googled all the places in the world where there were Jews and no Chabad. There was Luxemburg, Vietnam, South Korea. We even entertained the idea of going to Bahrain,” Asher recalls.
After briefly contemplating a move to Cuba, the young couple – who have strong ties to Milwaukee – landed on a tiny island in the Caribbean with a small, but strong Jewish community.
Twelve years later, the Federmans found themselves huddled with eight of their nine children (that could become 10 after Chronicle press time) in a St. Thomas doctor’s office about to endure Hurricane Irma. It was to be one of the worst storms to hit the U.S. Virgin Islands in decades.
That was Sept. 6.
Fourteen days later – in the midst of the high holidays – Hurricane Maria struck, adding flooding and mudslides to the already wind-ravaged island.
With their lives now split between Detroit – where Henya’s brother and sister-in-law live –and the battered island they call home, the family remains dedicated to finding a path forward for St. Thomas, themselves and the Chabad-Lubavitch chapter they built.
What has bolstered their resolve, Asher says, is their faith and a dedication to the community they serve.
Uncertainty and faith
When Hurricane Irma first hit there was plenty of fear and uncertainty.
No one knew if the family’s house would survive the storm, but Asher recalls his son Yitzchok’s confidence that it would.
“But we have the mezuzahs on the door,” the 10-year-old protested. “Our home is a place where people pray. The house is going to be just fine.”
When the family emerged the next day, they discovered that their home had indeed survived, but that hundreds of other structures had not, including the hospital.
With no power and no commercial flights leaving the island, a very pregnant Henya and the eight children piled onto a boat bound for Puerto Rico, and later a flight to the mainland.
When Federman asked if he should come with the family to Detroit, one of the children worried about the Jews left on the island without dad: “Who is going to play the shofar?”
Recovery and dedication
In the days and weeks that followed Irma – and later Maria – Asher helped to source and bring in supplies, including hundreds of generators, food, clothes and other daily necessities.
During Rosh Hashanah he handed out pomegranates, apples and honey sticks so that the Jewish community could celebrate the New Year.
“I would drive a mile from the house and sit on the side of a pitch black road and make calls. For the first month and half after the storm that was what life was like,” said Asher, who joined his wife and family in Detroit a few weeks ago.
Today, things are still tough on St. Thomas.
About 85 percent of the island remains without power, and many islanders who relied on the tourism industry for their paychecks are struggling to get by, said Asher, who continues to help with relief efforts.
While the family could easily relocate to Milwaukee where Henya’s parents – Wisconsin’s statewide Chabad directors Rabbi Yisroel and B. Devorah Shmotkin – and Asher’s mother live, Asher says they plan to return to the island as soon as they can.
“Henya and I don’t just look at this as a position. It is a life’s commitment to the island. So long as there is one Jew on the island we are staying,” Asher said. “This is our community. This is our island.”
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How to help with Hurricane recovery
Jewish Federations of North America, a network that includes Milwaukee Jewish Federation, has been responding to crises in northern California, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Florida and Houston.
The organization funds urgently needed basics like food and medicine. Donations to the 2017 Hurricane Relief Fund will 100 percent go to support those who have been affected by this year’s devastating storms, according to the Jewish Federations of North America.
For more information, visit MilwaukeeJewish.org/JFNA-Hurricane-Relief-2017. It’s also possible to donate through Chabad-Lubavitch of the Virgin Islands. The nonprofit’s website is at JewishVirginIslands.com.