A sign in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands greeted Rabbi Michael Feshbach after he emerged from his rented house in the wake of Hurricane Irma. (Michael Feshbach)
Columnist

In his farewell sermon to the congregation at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Md., Rabbi Michael Feshbach joked that he was going to quote “the great British philosopher Monty Python.”

The quote? “And now for something completely different.” Little did Rabbi Feshbach know quite how different his new job would be from his old one.

In late July, he moved with his wife and daughter to the U.S. Virgin Islands to lead the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, a small but historic synagogue on the Caribbean island. And on Sept. 6, the Feshbachs — Michael, his wife, Julie Novick, their 16-year-old daughter, Talia, and their dog, Luna — huddled in a bedroom closet of their rented house as Hurricane Irma tried to get inside.

There is a Jewish prayer recited on Yom Kippur that ponders the year ahead and asks who will die by water, who will die by fire.

“This is a prayer that’s chilling to anyone,” Rabbi Feshbach said last week by intermittent cellphone from St. Thomas. “It makes everyone confront morality and mortality. There are those who take this prayer very literally. I think of it in a different way.”

He had time to ponder it. For 20 minutes at the height of the storm, water seeped into their closet refuge. But then it stopped, the winds abated, and the Feshbachs emerged to see the island transformed. Windows blown out. Trees uprooted. Boats and cars tossed about.

And Rabbi Feshbach was hoping that in less than 48 hours, the Hebrew Congregation could have its Friday evening services. A lot was riding on his ability to pull it together.

“We are the second-oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and the oldest in continuous use under the American flag,” he said.

The synagogue was founded in the 1790s by Sephardic Jews whose ancestors had been driven from Spain centuries earlier, victims of the Inquisition. The layer of sand that covers the synagogue’s tile floor is a reminder of those times, Rabbi Feshbach said, when sand was used to muffle the footsteps of Jews worshiping in secret.

“When we have a bar mitzvah here — and it’s a strange phrase, but we have ‘destination bar mitzvahs’ — the sand on the floor connects us to the worst moment of Sephardic history, when they were kicked out of Spain,” Rabbi Feshbach said.

The Hebrew Congregation’s Torah scrolls come from synagogues destroyed during the Holocaust, a connection to the worst moment in the history of the Ashkenazi Jews of central and Eastern Europe.

Rabbi Feshbach had double-wrapped the scrolls in plastic sheeting. They weathered the storm undamaged.

A government-imposed curfew forced Rabbi Feshbach to move services forward an hour.

“We had eight people and two more watching on FaceTime from Maine,” he said. That gave him 10 worshipers, “which is supposed to be the minimum for a quorum, but I would have done it anyway.”

It was four days before the Feshbachs were able to send word to their two sons — in college on the mainland — that they were safe.

Religion helps us handle issues of life and death like those raised in that Yom Kippur prayer. So what of it, Rabbi?

“I come from a progressive religious tradition that takes spirituality and God seriously but not necessarily always in traditional ways,” Rabbi Feshbach said. “I do not think that things happen for a reason, as sacrilegious as that may sound.”

God, Rabbi Feshbach said, doesn’t control the weather. God doesn’t direct some of us onto a plane doomed to crash and others into a traffic jam that keeps us from boarding that plane.

“That’s not a God I can live with,” he said.

For Rabbi Feshbach, God is there for how we react to tragedy and how we help each other get through it.

He remembered back to when he started at Maryland’s Temple Shalom, in 2001, when one of his first sermons was after the 9/11 attacks.

“Being a rabbi in Washington was an amazing experience, a great 16 years,” he said. “One person had a more interesting story than the next. But it is also true here. Everybody has a story. It’s an eye-opening learning experience. And now there’s a real sense of struggle and of pulling together, determination, survival and a community that survives by caring for each other — on American soil.”

On Monday, Rabbi Feshbach and his fellow Americans were looking to the east. Hurricane Maria was on the way.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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