Alohoy vey: Jewish life on laid-back Big Island requires drive
Barry and Gloria Blum were living contentedly in the San Francisco area 11 years ago when their rabbi figure suggested they check out the Big Island of Hawaii, a notion Gloria had in fact been urging.
Today Barry practices orthopedic surgery in Kaihlua-Kona, one of the islands two largest towns, and serves as leader of Kona Beth Shalom, a 30-year-old unaffiliated congregation. Gloria writes Jewish-themed plays and performs with Barry in Konas Traveling Jewish Wedding Band, a klezmer group they founded.
Kentucky librarian Woody Yehuda Plaut was visiting an employment Web site two years ago when, as he tells it, he accidentally clicked on the Hawaii button. A few months later, he became librarian at Konawaena High School in Kealakekua on the Big Islands southwest coast. He says Jewish life, despite some frustrations, has never been better for him, his wife, and their two teenage children.
Michael Aranowitz went to bed two years ago in his northern California home wondering if he would ever conquer his chronic asthma. He says he awoke with a vision of a volcano beneath an orchid. The South African-born psychologist deduced he had received a message about the Big Island of Hawaii. He visited and quickly convinced his wife, Vivienne, that they should move the two time zones west.
Today his breathing is fine, and thanks in part to Vivienne, his Jewish life is fulfilling. Vivienne founded the Northern Hawaii Havura in late 2004. The informal group gathers in homes to celebrate holidays and meets once a month at a church in Waimea for Shabbat dinner, shmoozing, and a few Hebrew songs.
Some havuraniks also belong to KBS, which meets monthly for Friday evening and Saturday morning services on the outdoor terrace of the luxurious Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort south of Kailua-Kona on the islands southwest coast.
Combined, the two groups claim approximately 200 members, spread over 100-plus square miles, constituting what may be Americas geographically largest small Jewish community.
Big Island Judaism is not your fathers Judaism, unless your dad migrated to the land of loud shirts for slightly, shall we way, intuitive reasons and likes to combine Hebrew and traditional Hawaiian phrases. Thus, Shalom and Aloha join forces to form the greeting a visiting Jew is likely to hear from Big Island landsmen Shaloha.
Lessons on the lanai
As in any small community, Jewish practice on the Big Island depends on members eagerness to roll up their sleeves for more than tefilin. Congregants lead services, teach Hebrew, cook for potluck dinners, coordinate holiday celebrations, maintain a Web site, publish their own cookbook, visit the sick, and ritually prepare the dead for burial.
My joke is: You come to services, youre elected president, says Barry Blum. Turning serious, he declares that every member of a small Jewish community counts, sometimes in ways they could never imagine. The traffic deaths of KBS members Jerry and Judy Rothstein last year, for instance, resulted in KBS buying land for a Jewish section in the Homelani Cemetery in Hilo.
Big Island Jewish religious life is unique, however, in that just about any minyan requires someone to drive an hour or more, often at night, on poorly lit two-lane highways. For 11-year-old Becca Barrett of Waimea, the hour drive with her parents to the Outrigger for services feels like a bazillion hours.
Paul Janes of Laupohoehoe on the islands northeast coast recently sought to resign from the KBS board of directors because of the 200-mile round-trip drive to meetings. The board refused and he still attends meetings, but seldom can my wife and I go to simhas, he notes sadly.
Janes and his wife, Judi Steinman, left New Jersey two years ago, drawn by the Big Islands beauty. She has joined Vivienne Aranowitz in organizing havura events and occasionally sings Hebrew songs with Janes for patients at Hilo Medical Center, where Janes volunteers weekly as a Jewish chaplain.
The islands Jewish big kahuna has to be Blum, who has been president and worship leader of KBS for more than a decade and is certified to officiate at weddings as well as entertain at them with his band. In 2002, he and Gloria helped good friend Karen Breier publish KBS Shaloha cook book. It features traditional Jewish recipes with an occasional Hawaiian accent, such as Pineapple Kugel.
The childrens Hebrew teacher is Neil Soicher, a skinny, enthusiastic home builder, organic farmer, and PhD engineer. He teaches weekly classes in Waimea on a students lanai. (Nobody says patio in Hawaii.).
With a membership of 60 households spread over half the island and a floating Hebrew school, KBS is unlikely to have a permanent synagogue anytime soon. Im not actively pursuing it, says Barry Blum. If somebody wants to be a generous benefactor, well name the building after them.
The success of organized Jewish life on the island may depend more on improving outreach to the islands estimated 600 unaffiliated Jews. Steinman claims, and Janes and Barry Blum agree, that there is a hidden Jewish community on the island. It takes a Hanukka party to get them out.
Plaut, who says he meets far more Jews now than he ever saw in Kentucky, says KBS always has a core of 20-25 people who will show, but to have services on a regular basis has eluded us.
KBS and the havura post their activities on the Web and in a local paper so why dont more Jews participate? Some just feel negative about Judaism, says KBS board member Una Greenaway, an organic coffee and macadamia nut farmer just up the mountain from the town of Captain Cook on the southwest coast.
Theyre not big on the guilt trip they sense from some Kona Beth Shalom members, she says. Judaism has that problem anyway. Most people dont relate to the inspirational, spiritual, positive side of Judaism. They remember rote learning that wasnt inspiring.
For those who desire another Jewish option, theres always Aranowitz. As the Northern Hawaii Havura was cleaning up after a recent dinner, he announced that he would be leading Jewish Green Flash Meditation at a well-known beach.
Green Flash is particularly powerful for stress reduction, he explains.
And whats Jewish about it?
Me, he replies.
Say Shaloha, Michael.
Comment | | |
|©2006 New Jersey Jewish News
All rights reserved