Rabbi Sholom Bluming, who oversees the Jewish community of the Bahamas, wants to remind warm-weather travelers that the country battered by Hurricane Dorian has more than 700 islands, of which just two — Abaco and Grand Bahama — were devastated by the storm.
This is not to minimize the horrific toll of that country’s worst natural disaster, an August hurricane that made landfall with near-unthinkable Category 5 winds. But just last week, the rabbi had a full house of 150 for High Holiday services at Chabad in Nassau, the country’s largest city, which was spared by the storm — and which remains a compelling tourism destination.
Pastel colonial buildings are a perennial backdrop for island weddings. Limpid reefs attract divers and snorkelers, and boating is practically a religion, along with all manner of watersports. Casinos, an aquarium and shops keep landlubbers busy.
“Nassau is open for business,” said the rabbi, who with his wife, Sheera, serve as the island’s first Jewish clergy. On the island of New Providence, which together with neighboring Paradise Island escaped Dorian’s fury, Nassau is the overwhelming cultural and population hub of this Atlantic archipelago. More than a quarter-million people call the Bahamian capital home, including an international Jewish community that has coalesced around Rabbi Bluming’s Chabad house.
The Bahamas remains among the easiest of international trips for East Coast travelers. Numerous airlines, including JetBlue, fly nonstop from New York in about three hours; the flight from Miami takes less time than the wait at the airport, and Nassau is also a popular cruise destination, including for Florida day-trippers (round trip is around five hours).
But for Rabbi Bluming and his neighbors, tourism isn’t a matter of convenience; it’s a lifeline for a hard-hit community. Like his Chabad peers in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the Bahamas rabbi found himself thrust into the role of relief coordinator as the storm’s devastation became evident.
“When tragedy hits, it’s our duty as good people and as Jews to help,” Rabbi Bluming explained simply. “For 3,000 years, we’ve always been on the forefront helping one another. Jews are organically infused with the message of generosity, of tikkun olam.”
When punishing wind and rains lashed the islands, the rabbi and his wife mobilized to coordinate hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from Jewish individuals and organizations around the world. “That’s the strength of our people,” the rabbi said. Food, water and first aid were distributed from 17 centers around the most populated Bahamian islands, while the rabbi oversaw trucks that brought supplies to elderly and homebound Islanders.
“Six weeks out, we’re moving into the next phase, which means rebuilding,” said the rabbi. For the most affected Bahamians, moving on will be difficult; hundreds of families lost everything, including, heartbreakingly, many children.
But the rabbi has been heartened by the durability and commitment of his adopted community. Before he arrived, the Bahamas had no organized Jewish presence. Unlike Caribbean destinations like St. Thomas and Curaçao, which boast centuries of tangible Jewish history, the Bahamas are not so much a cultural destination as a primal escape.
“The Bahamas is the most tropical, gorgeous place, with some of the best beaches anywhere,” Rabbi Bluming raved. A community of Jewish expatriates agrees: Jewish islanders hail from diverse backgrounds, ages and affiliations, with Americans and Canadians alongside Europeans, South Americans, Israelis and South Africans.
Most of the Bahamas’ luxury hotels are in and around Nassau; observant guests gravitate to the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar, about a 15-minute walk from Saturday services at Chabad. For now, the sparkling blue Atlantic serves as the mikveh. Kosher food is plentiful, though there is no catering or restaurant as of yet.
But for the rabbi, the Bahamas’ very rusticity is its chief allure. “It’s a very safe, very relaxing place,” reflected the rabbi. “There’s not much entertainment otherwise. You just enjoy the beautiful weather.”
As a new year brings unprecedented challenges, Rabbi Bluming hopes mainland visitors will consider the Bahamas for winter vacations. “You help support the country,” he said. “But even more, you open your eyes to the beauty of the world around us. When we go on vacation, we close off our phones and focus on that beauty — looking at the water, swimming deep in the reefs. And sharing that beauty with the people most special to us.”