Home Local News Welcome center champions Judaism in PR
Issued : Saturday, April 7, 2012 04:40 PM
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Welcome center champions Judaism in PR

By Karen Schwartz/Chabad. org

Amy Tarshis was wandering through the streets of Old San Juan in January when she saw a man with a skullcap and a beard. With just three hours until her plane, she decided to add a new dimension to her Puerto Rico birthday trip, and approached him for a blessing. She wound up around the corner at the soon-to-be-open Jewish welcome center, talking about both her travels and the new center, where visitors could study a bit of Torah, pray, charge their cell phones, check their email, have some water and relax.

The New York resident decided to get involved in the Chabad-Lubavitch run center, which opened last month, and to honor her parents and grandparents with her support of it.

“My whole thing is that I’m so proud to be Jewish, and I’m so in love with Puerto Rico, the people, the culture and the music,” she said, adding that she hopes to one day help the center expand. “When and if that happens, I’m moving here.”

For Rabbi Levi and Rochel Leah Stein, who moved with their young daughter from New York to run the center under the direction of Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, director of Chabad of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, opening the center is a chance to create Jewish experiences for people thousands of miles from home who otherwise might not have them. As tourists come through from the many cruise ships that dock there daily, they offer them more than just a drink of water — there are computers, a Judaica display and Jewish souvenirs. They’ve held Bar Mitzvahs on the spot for men who had never donned the Jewish prayer boxes known as tefillin and handed out Sabbath candles to visitors who might not have thought to bring their own.

It’s a way to serve the segment of Jewish travelers who are only visiting for a brief stint, said Zarchi, and those that might not make it in, for one reason or another, to a synagogue.

“A Jewish welcome center does talk to people,” explained Zarchi. “It’s an inviting place where a person can walk in, and he’s not necessarily walking in to a service. He can get a Jewish souvenir; he can just feel good in a Jewish environment and have a discussion with a rabbi in the ambiance of Old San Juan.”

Local tourism companies are apparently excited about the development, the rabbi added, as they recognize the contributions Jewish visitors and passengers make to the local economy.

Between schmoozing with visitors and addressing their Jewish needs, the Steins also offer mezuzah cases made locally, bracelets and Jewish books to the fleets of tourists who certainly, as he puts it, were not expecting to see anything Jewish in Old San Juan one block from the docks.

“When they see a big mezuzah in the doorway, they’re surprised and start taking pictures,” said Levi Stein. “That’s usually when I come out to greet them and invite them inside.”

Right now the center’s just one room, but Stein said he looks forward to seeing it grow into a full computer lab and lounge area with an area for kids to play, possibly a restaurant, and beyond.

The idea is to create a Jewish experience in Puerto Rico that people can take home with them, whether they’ve put on tefillin, taken Sabbath candles, or just stopped to chat and ask questions about Judaism. They can also just use it as a pause, have some water and leave refreshed, having made use of a resource that lets them contact their family and friends back home.

The center also offers a Jewish-themed tour, which leaves from the port and takes people to area synagogues and a Holocaust memorial, a cemetery, and various Jewish businesses.

Gregory Demel, a Puerto Rico native who owns two jewelry and accessory stores, one next door to the building space the Steins are renovating for the center, enjoys being able to sit down and talk to the new rabbi about everything going on in his life.

With his family in business there some 50-odd years, Demel said he wouldn’t have expected that people would be so accepting and curious of the recent addition to the neighborhood, or that they’d welcome the opportunity to just pop by the center to talk.

“People just walk in,” he enthused.

Demel lauded the Steins’ cheerful demeanor, as well as their determination to support out-of-the-box ideas. He noted that the rabbi arranged a reading of the Scroll of Esther this past Purim for Demel and several friends. After it was over, he felt like he does after he makes a sale.

“I was the Jewish welcome center before the Steins came around,” remarked Demel. “Thankfully, they took my job.”

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