By: Shayna Zema
As I sat on my rooftop gazing into the sunset on my last night in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I began to reminisce about my first day on the “isla del encanto.” I arrived during the heat of an August day, and after dropping off my belongings at the place I’d call home only for a short time during my six months on the island, I felt drawn to explore an area that had captured my interest in photos while I was still in New York. The sweat began to drizzle down my forehead and settled in my eyebrows. Wiping my face with my hand. I looked up and was caught unprepared for the grandeur and majestic beauty of what I was observing. The reflection of the sun on the water of the Condado Lagoon flowing into the Atlantic Ocean radiated a bright, brilliant light that made my smile shine just as bright. I strolled onward through Luis Muñoz Rivera Park and admired the tall trees that folded into each other naturally to create a canopy overhead. Soon the capital building came into view, and its presence made my eyes widen as the sound of the ocean grew louder. The cobblestones accentuated the curves of my feet, and with each step, I entered further and further into Old San Juan. The aged limestone and the pure wonder of the castles and forts nearly took my breath away as I saw years of history live before me. The colorful Spanish architecture and tranquility of the city filled me with the sense of arriving at my own front door despite never having been there. I walked past the businesses on Fortaleza Street and was filled with joy as I spotted a small Jewish Center. I grew more comfortable despite being a perfect stranger in a strange land. I stood in a grassy field watching the crowds of people gather at one of the castles called “El Morro.” An energy filled me with excitement and a sense of adventure that I had been lacking at my university in Providence, Rhode Island.
The climate, intensity, and hustle of life in the Northeast had become overwhelming. I had begin to lose my sense of purpose and, more importantly, my sense of self. I knew I had to find a change from my destructive routine and took action.
Throughout my semester studying at the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras, I immersed myself in the Latin culture and learned invaluable life lessons that not only benefited me academically, but ultimately allowed me to explore what it means to be a young Jewish woman in the modern world—and the Caribbean. As an observant Jew, such a choice might seem unconventional, but after spending a year after high school doing service work in Latin America, the decision did not seem to surprise those in my inner circle. Without much planning, I had been directed onto the path of geography, and my academic passions became enlivened. I began to foster a relationship with one of my professors from the southern municipio of Ponce, and he confided in me that I was the first Jewish person he had ever met in Puerto Rico. That was a responsibility I definitely had not been prepared to tackle. What pre-conceived notions did natives have about Jewish people, and how would my actions and presence on the island change or confirm them? There was no way I could model being the “perfect Jew;” I might daven daily and keep Shabbat, but I do not pretend to be an angel that has descended from shamayim. Rather, I let the core of my religious principles channel into my actions to serve as a representative of Jewish values and beliefs.
With this new mission on the island, I began to develop meaning beyond my studies. I took up work in the tourism industry. Living and working at a youth hostel in Santurce, the most populated area of San Juan challenged me physically with demanding work and long hours. I did not realize how much it challenged me spiritually, too, until one day, after spending nearly three months there and submitting my letter of resignation despite not knowing where I would move next, it struck me: I wasn’t doing anything exciting—only transcribing an essay about hurricanes and climate for school—when I was wacked with a force that seemed to hit me harder than a strike of lightning. I remember learning in yeshiva, or Jewish school, all about the destruction of the second Temple and the deaths of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students due to something that seemed very small and insignificant: lashon harah, better known as gossip. I always found it hard to relate to this topic and brushed over this area of my learning until I was confronted with knowledge and understanding. What my teachers had told me about the Torah being a manual for life finally became apparent as the truth. Where I worked had become a microcosm of the world, and without even realizing it, I entered a self-destructive place where talking about others either behind their backs or even in front of their faces became completely commonplace. I was constantly comparing myself to others, and aspiring to be like somebody else. I lost focus with my true identity, my essence, of being created “b’tzelem elokim,” or in the image of G-d, and that my presence on this earth was to strengthen my relationship with my creator. Why were my attentions focused on the vain and the transient when I had the opportunity to cultivate a relationship with the all mighty Master of the Universe? As I rejoiced in song and prayer in such a spiritual and religious awakening, I laughed at how it was yad Hashem that brought me to that moment in the first place. From starting in one hostel, making a contact that brought me to another hostel, and ultimately meeting the people who would unintentionally say things to incite my harbored Jewish fervor, I underwent an unconscious cycle of fate and was overjoyed by the arrival at my destination.
With new motivation and determination, I spent one of my last Shabbatot on the island of Culebra. I had a field trip there with one of my geography classes and knew I couldn’t make it back to San Juan before sundown; therefore, I would need to spend the sacred time on the world’s second most beautiful beach—what a pity indeed. As I camped out on Flamenco Beach with a good friend from my class, I made Kiddush over wine and broke bread as we gazed up overhead at the hundreds of stars illuminating the black sky. A silence pervaded the area, yet I felt surrounded by an indescribable presence. I had the pleasure of spending nearly every Shabbat from August through December with the Chabad community in Isla Verde, an area that houses many beach-side resorts and hotels. Coming to Puerto Rico completely alone and not knowing East from West nor any human being, let alone a Jew, on an island less than 110 miles in length, I gained a community with whom I could share the most intimate part of my persona: my faith. I also felt comfortable practicing my faith beyond the walls of the synagogue. Despite the cold winds and rain from a passing storm, camping in the nature of Culebra allowed me to reconnect with my Judaism on a personal level without simply practicing as a group effort.
I was blessed to have met certain people who made moving to Old San Juan for my last month a reality. Staring at the ocean and the castle of San Cristobal daily left me with time to ponder what “Jewish” looks like today. The definition has expanded beyond the scope of Crown Heights and Monsey, New York. “Jewish” includes the thriving community of Jews in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “Jewish” includes the travelers passing through from Australia, Los Angeles, and even Israel. “Jewish” includes me, a young woman who came to the island in an attempt to organize her life and left with so much more: a love for the discipline of geography, a rekindling of her faith, and an appreciation for her true self—which, despite all of its different facets, can be summarized in one word quite proudly: “Jewish.”
The article is due to be published in Jewish Caribbean Magazine, a Chabad publication in March 2014.