Back to the Beach

By Jeri Zeder

Published September 28, 2006, issue of September 29, 2006.
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Block Island doesn’t have a synagogue. But that doesn’t stop the island’s tiny Jewish community from observing Yom Kippur — on the open deck of the Catholic parish center, with a breathtaking view of the Atlantic Ocean, facing Jerusalem.

Too small for even one traffic light, rustic Block Island is a lamb chop-shaped bit of Rhode Island, suspended between the Atlantic Ocean and Block Island Sound; New York’s Montauk Point aims straight at it. Last Groundhog Day, when everyone present on the island gathered at a local pub for the annual census, there were 980 islanders. Some 20 to 25 Jews live there year-round. Yet membership in Congregation Sons and Daughters of Ruth is at least triple that, thanks to the many Jewish off-islanders and not-quite-year-rounders who pay the $18-per-person, $36-per-couple annual dues.

There’s no charge for High Holy Day tickets.

“We don’t have an edifice complex,” explained Elliot Taubman, a permanent island resident and Jewish community leader. “There’s no building and no rent, so 90% of our budget goes to tzedakah.”

Block Island’s Yom Kippur is animated by haimish warmth and ecumenical support.

“A lot of things about being Jewish we’ve had to relax,” said Taubman’s wife, Jennifer. “Some people resent this, but when you live here year-round, there’s so much interaction [among all the religious communities], it’s one way of keeping it vital.”

Three quarters of the year, few formal Jewish observances take place. But during the summer, when the population swells with vacationers primarily from New York and southern New England, the congregation holds weekly Friday night services at the St. Andrew’s Parish Center on Spring Street near the Old Harbor. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services are held there, too.

“We have a symbiotic relationship with the Catholics,” said Elliot Taubman, who, with fellow attorney Richard Weisbroat, shares the roles of the community’s lay rabbi and lay cantor. “They do not use the parish center for much of Easter to Columbus Day, so we use it and call it the shul.” Taubman anticipates that about 60 people will attend Yom Kippur services this year. When the holy day falls on a weekend, the deck can fill up with nearly 100 worshippers.

Congregants arrive anticipating all those things that make a Block Island Yom Kippur special. Weather permitting, the chairs will be arranged in a semicircle on the deck. To shield their eyes from the morning sun, people will bring hats and umbrellas for themselves and to share.

“Only once in the last 15 years it rained on Yom Kippur,” congregant Bobbie Maxman said. Two Torahs will be present: a small one that’s kept in a cherry wood ark that was made by a carpenter from Block Island’s Baptist community, and a standard-sized one that’s been associated with the Draper family, who live on Block Island year-round, for generations. The three Draper boys’ bar mitzvahs were held on the island — the only known bar mitzvahs in Block Island history.

Once everyone is settled at about 10:15 a.m., Taubman, with Weisbroat assisting him, will ask congregants to introduce themselves. Like participants at a Passover Seder, people will take turns reading aloud from the gender-neutral Gates of Repentance prayer books. Weisbroat will blow the shofar. For many, the intimate Yizkor will be the most moving part of the service. Each person will be invited to reminisce about someone he or she has lost. “It’s very special,” Maxman said. “Some people’s voices crack.”

The congregation will disperse at 12:30 p.m. Some will board the ferry for home. Some will join Taubman on the beach. Others will be busy preparing for the closing services and potluck break fast, both of which will be held at sundown at Smugglers Cove, a restaurant in New Harbor owned by the Draper family. As they do every year, the Catholic and Episcopal priests, the Baptist minister and a representative from the Quaker community will attend. “There’s one part in the service where they let me recite some of the prayers,” said the Rev. Joseph Protano, the Catholic priest at St. Andrew’s Church. “They go around the table and include me in on that. Right on my bald head, I wear a yarmulke.”

That ecumenical spirit enriches the experience for Weisbroat. “For me, this is a shtetl, a little village,” he said. “It’s a wonderful place.”

Maxman remembers one year when the group erupted into laughter after the ferry seemed to blow its foghorn in response to the blast of the shofar. Regulars are happy when the calendar permits three generations of Maxmans to come to the island for the holidays.

Gloria Redlich, the congregation’s ritual committee chair, will never forget the year that a flutist came and offered to play while Redlich read a prayer — unusual for this congregation, which sings without instrumental accompaniment. “It was an exquisite autumn morning, sunlight on the ocean, waves pounding, blue sky,” Redlich recalled. “We came to the passage, and I read, and she played the flute. My sensation was that the music just rose up on the ocean spray, over the ocean to the sky. That one day stands out as a bubble in my life, a picture-perfect day.”

Jeri Zeder visits Block Island from Lexington, Mass.

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