As I sat on a rooftop gazing into the sunset on my last night in San Juan reminiscing about my time on Isla Del Encanto, the enchanted island, I realized the true impact being in Puerto Rico had on me.


ChabadCaribbeanMag_jpg.jpgI had arrived five months earlier during the sweltering heat of an August day. Maybe it would have made sense to slow down and take a break, but I was on a mission of sorts. I wanted to explore the area and see if it looked as wonderful in real life as it had in all those photos I had perused over again and again while at home in New York.

Sweat drizzled down my forehead, settling in my eyebrows as I wandered through the streets in search of the beauty I hoped to find. Brushing away the wetness, I noticed an amazing, majestic sight before me — the reflection of the sun on the water of the Condado Lagoon. The mix of sunshine and water radiated a bright, brilliant light. I smiled; my face shining in response to the beauty before me.

Could this place, with its splendor and history and slower pace of life, give me what I desperately needed? A sense of adventure and discovery, and, most of all, a break from the hectic, stressful and routine of college life. As I strolled onward through the Luis Muñoz Rivera Park in the Old San Juan section of Puerto Rico, I knew only time would tell if I could once again become the person I longed to be.

For now, though, it was enough to admire the tall trees flanking the path I was on. The trees folded into each other naturally, creating a canopy overhead, a shield from the blazing sun.

I continued on, further into Old San Juan. The aged limestone and the pure wonder of the castles and forts that had stood for centuries were awe-inspiring. I felt calm and almost as though I were at home, especially once I saw the Jewish Welcome Center. I knew I might find others who shared my heritage and faith. That, though, was not why I was here. I came to study – which was a bit ironic since the intensity of my studies at my Rhode Island-based university were weighing on me — at the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras.

As an observant Jew, studying in Puerto Rico might seem a bit unconventional, but I had done some post-high school service work in Latin America and had become passionate about geography and the Latin culture. At one point, one of my professors, a man from the southern municipio of Ponce, confided in me that I was the first Jewish person he’d ever met on the island.

That was a responsibility I was definitely not prepared to tackle. What preconceived notions did people like my professor have about the Jewish people? How would my actions and presence on the island change or confirm them? I decided to let the core of my religious principles — having respect for my fellow man and G‑d — channel into my actions to serve as a representation of Jewish values and beliefs.

With this new mission and purpose, I developed meaning beyond my studies. I took up work in the tourism industry, living and working at a youth hostel in the heavily populated area of Santurce. The work was demanding and challenging as I logged long hours at the job. Turns out, it challenged me spiritually, too, though I didn’t realize that until I prepared to leave my position three months later.

Submitting my letter of resignation, a revelation struck me with a force that seemed to hit me harder than a strike of lightning. I was focusing on all the wrong things.

Sitting in the hostel I was privy to all kinds of discussions about what this one did or that one wore. Gossip was fueling the conversations around me and I was constantly comparing myself to others, always aspiring to be like somebody else. In doing so, I lost focus with my true identity, my essence of being created in the image of G‑d. I had forgotten my true purpose in life — to strengthen my relationship with my creator.

I knew I had to make some changes, and a field trip to the island of Culebra with my classmates would give me the opportunity I was seeking. As the trip was scheduled for a Friday, there was no way I would make it back to San Juan before sundown, when the Jewish Sabbath began. That meant I was forced to spend the most sacred day of the Jewish week on the world’s second-most beautiful beach — a pity, indeed.

Camped out on Flamenco Beach with a friend from school, I recited the blessing over wine and broke bread as we gazed up overhead at the hundreds of stars illuminating the blackened night sky. A silence pervaded the area, yet I felt surrounded by an indescribable presence and overwhelming calm.

Though I had spent nearly every Shabbat in Puerto Rico with the local Chabad community, being in Culebra — despite some cold winds and rain from a passing storm — allowed me to reconnect with my Judaism on a personal level without simply practicing it as part of a group effort.

I recalled all of this as I stood on that rooftop that very last night on the enchanted island and reflected back on the young woman who had come to Puerto Rico in an attempt to organize her life and who was leaving with so much more: a love for the discipline of geography, a rekindling of her faith and an appreciation for her true self.