On a busy street in the Isla Verde section of San Juan, Puerto Rico, a construction crew clears a grassy field and preps the soil for its latest project - one that will benefit Jewish residents, businesspeople and tourists alike.

The construction of the Chabad Jewish Center — a multi-million dollar facility that will include a synagogue, kosher kitchen, social hall, classrooms and an upscale ritual bath — is the culmination of years of hard work by Rachel and Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, co-directors of the Chabad of Puerto Rico. 
Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 11.00.12 AM.png

“We have thousands of people who pass through our doors each year looking for Friday- night Shabbat services, kosher food or Passover dinner,” says Rabbi Zarchi. “And in January, when many Jewish day schools in the U.S. have their winter break, you can’t walk into our current building because there are so many people visiting.

“People come to the synagogue and have to turn around because they can’t walk inside. It’s so painful to see. We can fit 110 people at a time and that’s standing-room only. We just don’t have the space for everyone, which is why we are expanding our facilities.”

The Zarchis’ journey began on a Sunday morning just after New Year’s Day in 1999 when the young couple packed up the contents of their apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., and, along with their six- month-old son, boarded a plane for Puerto Rico and the start of a new life in a new city.

Their goal was to fulfill the dream of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory: to reach out to other Jews and share the light, essence and beauty of Judaism with them, regardless of where they live or their level of observance.

“We were raised in Crown Heights, close to the Rebbe, and his energy was electrifying and constant,” says Rabbi Zarchi. “The goal was, and is, to reach every individual.”

It is a mission the couple took quite seriously from the get-go. As soon as they arrived on the island and settled into their home, they began meeting local residents, holding classes and hosting people for Shabbat meals.

Their first official holiday services were held that spring as the Zarchis and some members of the local Jewish community gathered together in the couple’s home to celebrate the holiday of Passover.

The Zarchis were on their way.

“Six months after our arrival, we rented space at the Marriott hotel where we held services for less than a year,” the rabbi says. Though they were holding services at a hotel, the Zarchis worked primarily with the local community.

“The first three years of our shlichus [work as emissaries] were focused on establishing and nurturing out roots here and building a presence in the local community,” the rabbi recalls.

A few years later, a generous benefactor donated and renovated a space that he provided to the Zarchis for their programming, giving Chabad of Puerto Rico its first permanent facility. They stayed there for several years before outgrowing that space, as well. “In 2002, Chabad bought property and relocated from the Condado section of Puerto Rico to an area four miles away called Isla Verde,” recalls Zarchi, adding “we had to move our family to be closer to the new property.”

But while the new neighborhood had plenty of residential living options for a growing family — the Zarchis now have six children who range in age from 4 to 16 — and was a popular tourist spot, the couple did have some initial concerns.

“The first Shabbat we moved into Isla Verde, we had the most successful prayer services to date, and we knew this was G‑d’s way of telling us we were right to move,” Zarchi says.

With an eye toward the future, the couple soon acquired two adjacent properties and began dreaming of a larger center. They also brought down another couple — Rabbi Levi and Leah Stein of Brooklyn — to help them with their growing Chabad center.

A “nose-dive” in the local economy, however, put a temporary halt in the expansion plans. Though the economy in Puerto Rico continues to struggle, the Zarchis made the tough decision to push ahead with the project. Construction on the new Chabad Jewish Center began in November 2014, and is expected to be finished by the end of 2015.

“Currently, we don’t have space for classrooms or activities or parties or even some of our staff,” the rabbi explains. “The new property will allow us to have a mikvah [ritual bath], a space for our religious school, a room where people can hold a bris [circumcision] or a bar mitzvah.”

With their facilities now under construction, the Zarchis are temporarily renting a nearby space to hold services and programming until the new building is complete.

In addition to the Chabad Center, the Zarchis also established a Jewish Welcome Center on the island, which is overseen by the Steins.

“The Jewish Welcome Center is located in Old San Juan, which is the most-visited place in Puerto Rico,” explains Rabbi Stein. “Being in the historic area, the Welcome Center gives us the opportunity to meet with thousands of people who are visiting the area.”

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 11.02.06 AM.pngVisitors can enjoy a kosher lunch, put on tefillin or pick up a pair of Shabbat candles, says Stein. They can also charge their cell phones and check the Internet, not to mention buy a Jewish- themed souvenir that has been hand-painted by a local artist.

“It is designed for tourists,” he explains, but true to the history of Chabad in Puerto Rico, “there are also amenities for local Jewish families living and visiting Old San Juan.”

The growth of Chabad of Puerto Rico’s activities isn’t limited just to that island. Zarchi worked with Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, director of the International Conference of Chabad- Lubavitch emissaries and vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad- Lubavitch movement, to open nearly a dozen other Chabad Houses throughout the Caribbean, including a recently established center in Aruba. “Our first presence was in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” recalls Rabbi Zarchi. “We initially had contact with the Jewish community there even before we arrived in Puerto Rico. I’ll always remember, there was a gentleman who said, ‘S. Thomas will never have a Chabad House,’ and I told him ‘It will have a Chabad House!’

“So we started visiting and holding periodic events there, and, soon, we had more and more families joining us for holiday programs and services and we knew the time was right to open a Chabad House there,” Zarchi continues. “That was in 2005, just six years after we moved to Puerto Rico.”

Since then, the rabbi has been instrumental in bringing Chabad Houses to S. Maarten, the Dominican Republic, Martinique, Grenada, Jamaica and the Cayman Island.

While each center is run by a different couple, Zarchi interacts with them all and ensures that the shluchim, the emissaries, come together regularly.

“We just had a regional program led by Rabbi Kotlarsky, and my father, Rabbi Shlomie Zarchi, the spiritual dean of the Central Lubavitch Yeshiva in Crown Heights,” he says. “It was a two-day event with workshops and speakers. Each emissary shared their experiences.” Noting that the emissaries each live on a different island, Zarchi says that “it’s good to get together and lift each other’s spirits. 

When you are out there in more remote places and away from a large established Jewish community you become THE address of people when issues arise.

“The demand is intense and you have to deal with every type of challenge that arises,” he explains. “Whether it’s an Israeli citizen who has lost a passport or a visitor who has passed away or any other issue, the demand for a rabbinic presence and interaction is immense, and these issues come up all the time.”

While all of that may sound like an exhausting and daunting task, the Zarchis and Steins are up to the challenge.

And, perhaps, just as importantly, people are counting on them. “We were talking with someone the other day and he told me ‘Every time I pass the shul [synagogue] — be it seven in the morning or seven at night – I know that the doors are open and I know you can be found over there. You went from being a novelty to a part of the fabric of life here.’ ” That thought, says the rabbi, “is pretty powerful.”

He adds, “365 days a year, the lights are on, the coffee’s brewing. We are open in a hurricane, in a storm. No matter what, Chabad’s doors are open and people expect you to be there. It’s a comfort to them.”

Despite all the work, the Zarchis are sure they have the best job in the word. “You get to see blessings come your way and how nothing is by chance,” says Rachel Zarchi. “Living here for 16 years, we’ve seen the hand of G‑d and the hand of the Rebbe involved in our shlichus, and that gives us the energy to keep on going.

“And,” she continues with a laugh in her voice, “the weather definitely helps.”