Jewish Welcome Center Opens its Doors in Old San Juan

 By Karen Schwartz
Amy Tarshis, a frequent traveler to Puerto Rico, was wandering through the streets of Old San Juan with three hours left before her return flight to New York City was scheduled to leave. While shopping for souvenirs, she was amazed to see what appeared before her; a man, an obviously observant young Jewish man with a kippah, tzitzit and the middle of this historical Old City.
With just a few hours left until her flight back, she decided to add a new dimension to her Puerto Rico "birthday trip" and approached the young bearded man for a blessing. She wound up around the corner at the soon-to-be-open "Jewish Welcome Center of Old San Juan" talking with the young kippah-wearing gentleman who identified himself as Rabbi Levi Stein. She spoke of her travels and her complete amazement that the new Jewish center even existed in her favorite Caribbean city.  Rabbi Stein explained that he and his wife Leah sought to help Chabad of Puerto Rico create this special drop-in spot where visitors could study a bit of Torah, pray, meet others, charge their cell phones, check their email, enjoy a cold bottle of water and simply sit and relax.

jwc.jpgWithout hesitation, the New York resident decided to get involved and dedicate the Chabad-Lubavitch center as a way to honor the memory of her parents and grandparents. She is confident that the Jewish Welcome Center of Old San Juan is poised to make a difference from its' humble home on Calle Fortaleza, the very same street where Puerto Rico's Governer and First Lady reside.

As Amy expressed to me: “My whole thing is that I’m so proud to be Jewish, and I’m so in love with Puerto Rico, the people, the culture and the music,” adding that she hopes to one day help the center expand: “If, or rather, when that happens, I’m moving here.”

It’s a way to "serve the segment of Jewish travelers who are only visiting for a brief stint", said Chabad of Puerto Rico's Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, as well as "those that might not make their way, for one reason or another, to a synagogue." For Rabbi Levi and Leah Stein, who moved to San Juan from New York to operate the Jewish Welcome Center, they envision the opportunity to create Jewish experiences for people who've traveled thousands of miles from home who otherwise might not have them.
As tourists come through on huge cruise ships that dock within a short distance from the center, they offer them more than just a drink of water...there are computers, a Judaica display and uniquely Puerto Rican Jewish souvenirs made by local artists. At the small center, Rabbi Stein has held Bar Mitzvahs "on the spot" for men who had never donned the Jewish prayer boxes known as Tefillin and he and his wife have handed out Shabbat Candles to visitors who might not have thought to bring their own.

“A Jewish Welcome Center does talk to people,” explained Rabbi Zarchi. “It’s an inviting place where a person can walk in, while not necessarily walking in to a religious service. They can get a Jewish souvenir or just feel good in a Jewish environment and have a discussion with a Rabbi in the ambiance of Old San Juan.”

"Local tourism companies are excited" about the development, the Rabbi added, as they recognize the contributions Jewish visitors and passengers make to the local economy.

Between schmoozing with visitors and addressing their Jewish needs, the Stein's also offer locally-made mezzuzah cases made to look like the Guard Houses of nearby National Historic site, "El Morro", Bamboo Bracelets that promote Jewish pride and Jewish/Caribbean themed history books to the fleets of tourists who, as Rabbi Stein puts it: "were not expecting to see ANYTHING Jewish in Old San Juan!"

He added: “When they see a big mezuzah in the doorway, they’re surprised and start taking pictures,” said Rabbi Stein, "that's usually when I come out to greet them and invite them inside.”

Rabbi Stein expressed excitement at the prospect of seeing the Center grow into a full computer lab and lounge area with an area for kids to play, a spot to grab a bite, and beyond.

"The idea is to create a Jewish experience in Puerto Rico that people can take home with them, whether they’ve put on Tefillin, taken a pair of Shabbat candles, or just stopped to chat."

The center also offers, by appointment, a Jewish-themed tour of the San Juan area which leaves from the cruise ship port area and takes people to local synagogues, a Holocaust memorial, a burial site, and various Jewish businesses.

Gregory Demel, a Puerto Rico native who owns two jewelry stores in Old San Juan, enjoys being able to sit down and talk to the new Rabbi about everything going on in his life.

With his family in business in Old San Juan for over 50 years, Demel said he wouldn’t have expected that people would be so accepting and so curious of the recent Jewish addition to the neighborhood, or that they’d welcome the opportunity to just pop by the center to talk.

“People just walk in,” he enthused, "it's great to see".

Demel lauded the Steins’ cheerful demeanor, as well as their determination to support out-of-the-box ideas. He noted that Rabbi Stein arranged a reading of the Scroll of Esther this past Purim for Demel and several friends. After it was over, he felt such pride.

“I was the Jewish welcome center before the Steins came around,” remarked Demel. “Thankfully, they took my job.”