BERMUDA (Chabad.org/Menachem Posner) – Pink beaches and coral reefs, vibrant, pastel-colored architecture against a turquoise sea, and charming, twisting narrow roads, all come together to make Bermuda a 21-square-mile strip of paradise on earth.
But the self-governing British overseas territory—which is said to have both the highest per-capita income and the highest cost of living of any country or territory in the world— is not where most people think it is, in the Caribbean, notes Warren Bank, a lawyer who moved from the United Kingdom to Bermuda in 2021. “It’s a rock in the middle of the North Atlantic, far closer to New York City than anywhere in the Caribbean,” he says. In fact, Bermuda is a less than two hour flight from New York.
Bank is among the many Jewish Bermuda locals excited to welcome the nation’s first permanent Chabad House, led by Rabbi Chaim and Menuchy Birnhack, following decades of regular visits by Chabad Roving Rabbis. “We’ve never had a full-time rabbi or spiritual leader who could inspire the community and also attract new Jewish residents,” Bank explains.
Chabad’s arrival on the island has special significance this year. Marking the 120th anniversary of the birth of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, this year Chabad will be establishing 1,210 new institutions around the world. The locations range from Costa Rica (where Chabad has had a presence since 1989) to Pittsburgh, Pa. (where the first Chabad institution opened in 1943).
With the Birnhacks’ arrival, Bermuda will become the 13th in a constellation of island Chabad Houses operating in the North Atlantic, nurtured by Rabbi Mendel and Rochi Zarchi, who founded the first permanent Caribbean Chabad-Lubavitch center, in Puerto Rico, in 1999.
Bermuda’s Checkered Jewish Past
Discovered in the early 1500s by Spanish explorer Juan de Bermúdez, after whom it was named, it had no indigenous inhabitants. One hundred years later, it was settled and claimed by the British, who named it Somers Isles. In time, it developed into a lively center of shipbuilding, whaling, salt trading and privateering.
But Jewish life was slow to develop.
In 1694, the Bermuda Colony adopted a law banning Jewish merchants, levying a five-pound tax on any Jew (or “reputed Jew”) attempting to conduct business there. As a result, while the colonies in North America and the Caribbean flourished, in no small part due to Jewish business people, Bermuda lagged behind.
The law was finally repealed in 1760, with the repeal bill noting that “our neighboring islands who have permitted Jews to trade there have reaped great advantage therefrom.”
While Jews trickled in, they were not always welcomed. Even into the 1960s, Jews vacationing in Bermuda were still not allowed into certain hotels or leisure establishments.
Yet, its subtropical climate and proximity to the North American seaboard proved alluring, and a small Jewish community developed. Others were drawn for business opportunities. Known as the “world’s risk capital,” Bermuda is a center for the insurance and reinsurance industries.
Community Leaders Pave the Way
For many years, Jewish life in Bermuda was sustained through the tireless efforts of Dr. Fiona and Jeff Elkinson.
An addictions counselor, Dr. Elkinson is the president of the local Jewish community and has been instrumental in paving the way for Chabad’s integration into the community.
When exploring the possibility of accepting Rabbi Zarchi’s invitation to Bermuda, the Birnhacks consulted Tadjia and Dr. Brett Lefkowitz, who currently serves as Health Disaster Coordinator for Bermuda’s Ministry of Health.
Dr. Lefkowitz, who had originally reached out to Chabad in Puerto Rico to explore the feasibility of opening a Chabad House in Bermuda, then made it his personal mission to reach out to fellow Jewish Bermudians and get them excited about the prospect of a Chabad House of their own and how much they and their families would benefit from having a Chabad couple full-time on the island.
“It’s a combination of natural beauty and community, the friendliest people you could meet anywhere,” says Gilad Hayeem, a native of London, who met the Birnhacks in 2021, when they first came to Bermuda for a pilot trip that included hosting a Purim celebration. “There has been an increasing amount of interest in Jewish life.
“There has been a lovely community that has been welcoming, that has kept Judaism alive here,” continues Hayeem, who studies Torah with the rabbi over Zoom and is already a major supporter of the new Chabad House. “It feels like the right moment for Chabad to come in and complement what the existing community has done by giving an outlet for people who want a more religious and traditionally Judaic experience.”
Joining Hayeem, support for the new institution has been supplied many donations from around the world, the Chabad House is made possible through a grant from the Meromim Foundation and assistance from Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, Rabbi Bentzi Lipsker, and Rabbi Chay Amar of Golden Beach, Fla.
In addition to raising the necessary funds to get the project off the ground—Bermuda tops the charts of most expensive places to live—the Birnhacks are also searching for a rental that will house their Chabad House and also serve as their personal home.
“Every island is unique, and the couple that serves them must fit that vibe,” says Rabbi Zarchi. “The Birnhacks have the talent, sensitivity, and drive to build a thriving Chabad presence that will serve locals and tourists on this key island.”
“We came on Purim and read the Megillah,” says Menuchy Birnhack, who grew up in Beitar Illit, a religious enclave southwest of Jerusalem. “The people are so nice, so kind, so welcoming.”
“It was very pleasant to have an actual rabbi visit,” adds Ariel Hart Freedman, an accountant who grew up in Canada, “and I began thinking, ‘What if we had a Chabad?!’ ”
Even from a distance, Freedman has benefitted from Rabbi Birnhack’s guidance, using his phone to photograph the doorways of his home, so the rabbi could instruct him on how to install mezuzahs on each of them.
Upon arrival, the Birnhacks plan to start with Shabbat meals and programs, which they expect to be especially popular during the summer tourist season.
“At the moment there is nothing available for tourists,” says Tadjia Lefkowitz. “There are no regular shul services if they want to daven (‘pray’) on Shabbat, and there is no kosher food available for them here. Chabad will be able to provide that for them.”
While most grocery store items are imported from North America and many bear kosher certification, there is no kosher meat available in Bermuda, and so the Birnhacks will need to import enough for themselves and for locals and visitors wishing to keep kosher.
“There are Chabad Houses in every corner of the world, in every city where there are just a few Jews” reflects Bank about the impending arrival of Chabad. “It is about time that a Chabad House gets established here.”