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St. Thomas Chabad family relocates to Detroit, while husband stays to provide aid
Since their arrival on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2005, Rabbi Asher and Henya Federman and their children have experienced two hurricanes. They are co-directors of a Chabad House in the Red Hook area on the east end of the island, located near the coast.
When weather forecasters predicted Hurricane Irma could reach a Category 5 strength storm, they were grateful to move to a friend’s newly built office building during the hurricane.
“The building has hurricane windows so we could watch the storm. It is a secure building with a generator so it was a blessing for us,” Henya says. Once the storm was over, they ventured outside and were amazed by the destruction. “It was like a war zone. People were stunned. There were homes without roofs, without walls. Furniture had been tossed across streets.”
While the exterior of their home was badly damaged, the interior fared well without major flooding. However, there was no electrical power, a severe problem because individual homes on St. Thomas rely on cisterns, pumps and filtration systems for their water.
“The St. Thomas power grid is never strong, with frequent blackouts,” she explains. Estimates indicate it could take four months to a year for power to be restored.
Without power and uncertainty about food and other supplies, Henya and eight of her children evacuated by boat to Puerto Rico on Sunday, Sept. 10, a few days after Irma devastated the island. From there they flew to Milwaukee, where Henya’s parents live. Two days later, they arrived in Metro Detroit to stay with her brother and sister-in-law — Rabbi Shmaya and Devorah Leah Shmotkin. Asher Federman remained on St. Thomas to coordinate relief efforts for the Jewish and general communities and to organize religious services for the High Holidays.
Henya says her school-age children are adjusting to the Lubavitch cheders (schools) in Oak Park — a new experience because they relied on online education on St. Thomas, which has no Jewish schools. Their oldest daughter, who is 12, already attended a Lubavitch school here.
While the children miss their father, “they understand why he is there,” Henya says. There are 400 year-round Jews on St. Thomas including retirees, young people and business owners. The community is really in need now although people are looking out for each other, she adds. Some have left for good or for a few months. The Federman family plans to wait until the power and water systems are stable before returning to St. Thomas.
“St. Thomas is my home and I love what we do,” she adds.
Helping On St. Thomas
Asher has organized relief efforts, relying on donors and individuals with private planes, both Jewish and Christian, to transport essential items such as generators, batteries, kosher MREs (meals ready to eat), diapers and other items. Their efforts have been vital while the island’s ports were closed.
He and others in the Chabad community are working with a Family Resource Center and the government to coordinate aid. Soon after Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria came through as a Category 2 storm, Asher says, causing flooding and mud slides. Many homes have tarpaulins in place of roofs.
With no internet or much power, residents don’t always know where emergency distribution centers are located. “So, we are delivering supplies to them,” he says. “One hundred families are targeted. Containers arrived last Sunday from Houston and Florida.”
Despite logistical and other obstacles, Asher Federman held services for the High Holidays. With a curfew in place, he said that only those with curfew passes would be able to attend Kol Nidre services at the Chabad House, while others will pray at home, using mahzors handed out before Yom Kippur. In addition, a few individuals are staying at the Chabad House. Asher blew the shofar in several locations on Rosh Hashanah and several Jewish Marines assisting on the island joined him in prayer.
He hopes to visit his family in Detroit by Simchat Torah, but is focused on relief efforts. “There are a significant number of Jewish people here,” Asher says. “They can’t leave their homes and businesses and they need us.”
To aid Chabad efforts, visit chabad.org/special/campaigns/hurricane/donate.htm.