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Judah in Bermuda

Resort island's tiny Jewish community
struggles to build Yiddishkeit in paradise 

S. D. Jewish Press-Heritage Oct-22-1999


By Donald H. Harrison

Hamilton, Bermuda (special) -- As president of Bermuda's tiny Jewish community, Randi Cunningham has to be both a problem solver and an innovator.
There are approximately 110 people, including children, who are members of the organized Jewish community here. Lay leaders conduct Friday night Shabbat services once a month in rented facilities. There are no Saturday morning services. Holidays are celebrated either in rented facilities or in people's homes. A rabbi usually is imported from the United States to conduct High Holy Day services.

Every few years, someone makes the suggestion that the Jewish Community of Bermuda should find a permanent home. And just as often, that suggestion is turned down as financially impractical.

So when a woman who accompanied her husband to a lawyers' convention in Bermuda telephoned Cunningham to ask "where is the mikvah?" Cunningham couldn't help be delighted with the naivete of the question. After she explained island realities, she suggested: "How about the ocean?"

The woman agreed, asking Cunningham if she would serve as attendant at her mikvah. So "another woman and I took her to the beach, where you are not allowed to bathe unclothed, but we went at night...with flashlights, and she had her mikvah,

Diana Lynn, lay leader
of the Bermuda 
keeps these"Bermuda 
tourist" Shabbos
candles on display 
at her house near 
St. George's
then went back to her hotel," she related.

"That was interesting," added Cunningham who grew up in Conservative congregations in suburban New York and New Jersey. "I am sure I never would have gotten the opportunity to be a mikvah attendant if I hadn't been to Bermuda."
Before Nancy and I joined cousins Harry and Sherry Jacobson-Beyer on a round trip cruise between New York and Bermuda, I had arranged by e-mail to interview Cunningham at the Rock Island Coffee establishment in Hamilton, a few blocks from where Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's Nordic Empress docks. 

But how would I recognize her, I wondered as I sat at a patio table outside. Then I had to laugh as I saw how adroitly Cunningham had solved the same problem. Peeking out from the notebooks she was carrying was a small Simcha Torah-style Israeli flag. 

Interactions with Jewish tourists are a regular feature of the community's life on this island group located a little less than 600 miles east of North Carolina in a section of the Atlantic Ocean known as the Sargasso Sea.

"Two years ago there was a Jewish tourist who was injured pretty badly in a motorbike accident, so there were members of the community helping the family," Cunningham said.

Statue of Sir George Somers, 
whose ship SeaVenture was ship-
wrecked in Bermuda, resulting in 
the founding of that British colony, 
is juxtaposed against one of the
many cruise ships that bring 
tourists to Bermuda on purpose.
The hospital has (lay leader) Diana Lynn's name, and I said that they should put my name down as a backup for tourists," she said. "People come and go so much it is always good to have three or four names."
"We have tourists at all our events," she said. Recently, for example, there were "tourists on Rosh Hashanah."

The relationship between island residents and tourists appears mutually beneficial. A woman whose husband recently was assigned to Bermuda on a business matter expected to last a half year or more has arranged to import kosher foods from the United States, and has offered to include with her order those of any Bermudian who also wants kosher meats.

Cunningham, a vegetarian, said there were several families who gratefully accepted the offer.

Last Passover, an Orthodox group called the Stirling Experience "had a big seder at a local hotel," Cunningham said. The upscale group used to go to Hawaii, but this time they booked many rooms at the Southampton Princess hotel. "They ripped out kitchens, put in new equipment, and had various requirements--'turn this light out, turn this light on'-- that no one (on the staff) understood."

Menorah and Shells -- 
Diana Lynn, lay leader 
of the Bermuda Jewish
community, enjoys a 
moment with her son 
Eli,a high school 
senior, in a kitchen 
reflecting Jewishlife
amid Bermuda 
Even if the requests seemed strange to Bermudian ears, the hotel was more than pleased to kasher the kitchen and to comply with Shabbos lighting regulations. "It was pre-season so it was kind of a coup to get that much occupancy," Cunningham said.
Normally the group does not invite locals to its events, "but since we are such a small community, they said they would let us come," Cunningham said. "But it was $150 a head, so we only had 18 or 19 people attending." She and her husband decided $600 for a family of four was a little pricey, so Cunningham took only her oldest son Jordan, 8.

"It was very interesting," she recalled. "Jordan was running around with another kid named Jordan with payis . I was at the Princess a few days later because that is where I get my haircut and the other Jordan said, 'Oh I thought you went home.

'And we said, 'no we live here.' And he said: 'You live here? What yeshiva do you go to?" Cunningham laughed with pleasure at the idea of a full-time Jewish school in Bermuda.

ADAM & EVE Wall hanging by artist
Helen Daniels, a Bermudian, depicts a 
moment in the Garden of Eden. The 
piece is owned by Fred Lipshultz and 
his wife, Diana Lynn, lay leader of the 
Jewish community of Bermuda.
"It was very nice, a cantor and a rabbi, a true seder, but we had a nice community one here as well (on the second night)."

For many years before Cunningham came on the scene, Diana Lynn--a product of Conservative and Reform congregations in Washington DC and Boston--volunteered both as a lay service leader and as an administrator. 

Eventually, Lynn had to back away from the administration of the congregation because of the demands of her full-time job as Elderhostel coordinator at the Bermuda Biological Station for Research, where students pay about $700 per week to participate in an ecology-oriented program.

"I have about 600 students here a year over the age of 55 and we snorkel and we hike and we look at Bermuda in depth and we study oceanography and it is fabulous," said Lynn, whose husband, Fred Lipschultz, is one of the oceanographers at the research center. 

With their two teen-aged children, "we live in a small cottage on the station," Lynn said. "I call it a goyishe kibbutz. " The scientists work and live at the station so we don't have a commute, and we socialize with each other. We work and live together. " 

The research station is located just outside the town of St. George, about a half-hour hard drive over windy, narrow roads to Hamilton where the Jewish community holds its meetings.

Tourism is Bermuda's major industry. "I think we have something like 400,000 visitors a year," Lynn said. "Even if only 10,000 of them are Jews, how do 100 people (in the local Jewish community) deal with that?"

As painful as it is, "when people call and say, 'I have to say kaddish', we have to say 'sorry, we don't have a regular minyan every day, or even every week,'" Lynn said. "They haven't researched whether we have a rabbi or a congregation or what.

"I even get people who come here and want to get married: Jewish couples sometimes, and a lot of mixed-faith couples who want to have a Jewish wedding. I say you have to bring your own rabbi."

The Bermuda government, in fact, is very strict about the matter of marriages. For more than 150 years, Bermuda law has required that anyone desiring to be married on the islands must first publish their intention to do so in the newspapers, so anyone who knows a reason why the couple shouldn't be married will have an opportunity to protest.

In the event that couples want to bring their own rabbis (or ministers), the clergy members are required to obtain a special, limited duration license to conduct wedding services.

As a kiskadee vocalized its name from a tree in her yard, Lynn told me: "I ask people 'why are you coming to a honeymoon place to get married and why are you bringing your mother-in-law for your honeymoon?' I find that kind of charming and bizarre, but they say 'we want to avoid the big wedding bit; we just want our closest friends.'"
Lynn and Cunningham share many similarities. When they lived in the United States, neither of them would have pictured themselves serving as either lay leader or congregational president for a Jewish community.

Lynn came to Bermuda in 1989, some years before the United States ended its military presence on the island as part of its base consolidation and closure program. "We used to have services at the chapel at the U.S. Naval Base," which was located on St David's Island, across a narrow inlet from the research station. "They had a visiting rabbi--Herb Tobin--who had been coming here for several years, a reconstructionist rabbi (who) was a development chairman for some institute," she said.

of her arrival in Bermuda, Randi 
Cunningham became volunteer
president of the Jewish Community 
of Bermuda
As Tobin was not a cantor, "I offered to sing for High Holidays," Lynn said. When her predecessor as lay leader left Bermuda to take a job somewhere else, "I started to run Friday night services once a month.... And I started to write a little newsletter. And a little later I started a Torah study once a month, and I started to keep more of the minor holidays."

At the suggestion of Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, who had been her rabbi in Canton, Mass., and who since has become director of the Reform movement's Kollel in Toronto, Lynn decided in 1991 to enroll in a program for rabbinic aides in New York State.

"It was fabulous," Lynn said. "It taught me to do what rabbis do-- the pragmatic part of it. How to run a service, what the service consists of, how to write a sermon, how to conduct a funeral, how to conduct a baby naming, how to conduct a bris, how to conduct a bar mitzvah, even weddings .... How to interview a couple, counseling, pastoral care. It was amazing! You can imagine, we were up 18 hours a day! 

"I came back extremely invigorated by that. At that point I wasn't working very much--about 20 hours a week for 20 weeks a year. So I came back and taught myself to do Torah study and used the Reform movement's Torah study tapes. And things were cooking. More families were coming with kids, and Fiona Elkinson--who is Irish Jewish, who went to Australia and then to Hong Kong and came here-- was our teacher. She started running a Torah class, a Hebrew school really, for my kids and other kids in the 8-10 year old range."

The congregation rented space above the Chamber of Commerce in Hamilton, and later at the Unity Foundation, which Lynn described as "kind of an offshoot Christian denomination" who were "accommodating" but whose space seemed far too small. When the Unity Foundation sold its building recently, the Jewish congregation began a search for new quarters.

With Rabbi Tobin unavailable, High Holy Day services were conducted this year by Rabbi Nathan Abramowitz, who recently retired from the Conservative pulpit of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in Washington D.C.

The services were held at the Royal Hamilton Amateur Dinghy Club -- named for the famed Bermuda boat with voluminous sails and a small hull.

"Somewhere else, your commitment can be less and you can still feel Jewish," Lynn commented. "In New York, you walk down the street and you feel Jewish. But here you either disappear or you have to make a commitment because it is really hard to be Jewish here. You have to do something for your identity."

Before Lynn left Massachusetts, Rabbi Goldstein had told her: "You must be going to Bermuda for a reason. It is one of my most favorite places on earth, but it is a Jewish wasteland ...

"When I came here and services were very minimal, I said 'well I am it; it is a game of it; I have to be it; I have to do it myself.' So my rabbi was right: I did have a mission to come here, both for my community and for myself."

Lynn said she hopes that she and her family will be able someday to relocate back to the United States notwithstanding their love for Bermuda's beauty.

"This is my place but not my people," she explained. "I love the outdoors of it, the beauty, the nature, the sun...but it's definitely not my people. It is a very Christian society. You can't say anything in Yiddish and have people understand it....

"I miss my Jewish life, Jewish culture. My visual senses here are exploded but I don't hear Jewish music, I don't hear Jewish voices and accents; I don't see Jewish faces, or smell Jewish bakeries, chicken soup, so I am starved for that."

The process Lynn went through seems to be repeating itself in Cunningham's life.

"When I came," the congregation's new president commented, "I found out that if you don't do it, it doesn't happen. Since I wasn't working I had a lot more volunteer time to devote to it. And I wanted to-- particularly for my children. ... There already was a small Hebrew school but I have become very active there and I teach one of the sections."

Elkinson, who is quite observant and has a master's degree in Hebrew, teaches a Hebrew section. Another mother teaches Jewish history. Now Cunningham teaches a course in Jewish life.

As Lynn did before her, Cunningham feels the need to deepen her knowledge, so recently "ordered lesson material from Torah Ora, which unfortunately was lost in the mail, and I am dying for it to come."

The Hebrew school class, which has ten students and four prospects, meets once a week for two hours in a guest house that is located on the property that Cunningham and her husband are renting. 

"We have another program called Torah Tots, which is preschool," she said. "We have 5-6 preschoolers, under 5, and they play, get used to each other and do a little Shabbat service."

The guest house "used to be a Gospel Church," Cunningham said. "Bermuda has more churches per square mile than any other country. Before there was mass transportation, there were a lot of small churches so people could walk. The name of the house is Gospel Hall Cottage ... Now there is a big poster there with the Hebrew Alphabet right next to where it says "Gospel Hall Cottage' so it is kind of funny."

A community so Christian in character is not at all what Cunningham was used to. Public schools closed over the Jewish High Holy Days in the suburban New York communities where she grew up because the overwhelming majority of the students were Jewish. When she and her husband, Roger, moved to London where both took jobs in the financial industry, they found a suburb to live in that also was predominantly Jewish.

When her husband -- who grew up in Paducah, Ky., the child of a Jewish mother and Gentile father -- was offered an attractive job in Bermuda, they decided to give living in a non-Jewish neighborhood a try.

Like Lynn, Cunningham is looking forward to returning to the United States from Bermuda eventually. But whereas she once felt she needed the security of living in a Jewish neighborhood, she said she is now certain that she can live anywhere and maintain Yiddishkeit anywhere.

"I think it has been helpful that I have become more knowledgeable," she said. "If I want my children to be educated, it's a better experience when I am doing it with them rather than sending them off and saying: 'You learn. I did the time. Now you do yours.' It's better for the whole family."