Sun, sand, reggae — and ritual bath: A mikvah in Jamaica
Jews looking for a destination wedding spot that offers sun, sand and a fully halachic experience can now pick Jamaica, where a local Chabad house opened the island’s only mikvah.
“I think this will become a big hotspot for kosher Jewish destination weddings,” said Rabbi Yaakov Raskin, who leads the Chabad house in Montego Bay. “The Chabad house is not just overlooking the beautiful Caribbean Sea, but also looking over a beautiful golf course.”
Raskin and his wife came to Jamaica nine years ago to establish the first permanent Chabad house in the country. Almost immediately, the lack of a mikvah proved to be a problem — traditionally, a mikvah is the first thing that needs to be established when building a synagogue, even before a torah scroll. While serving both the small Jewish community that lives in Jamaica year-round and the thousands of tourists that come through each year, the Raskins had to improvise: They made friends with the manager of a nearby resort, who allowed them to surreptitiously use a secluded part of the beach for the ritual bathing. Mikvah water needs to be from a natural source, but dealing with ocean water proved challenging.
“You’re doing it at night, there’s not so much light, you have to find privacy. There’s rocks, there can be crabs,” he said.
It wasn’t until 2019 that they found a location for the Chabad that would be large enough to accommodate a mikvah. Once the pandemic hit, the project was delayed.
While the initial plan was to “dig a hole and put up a tent,” as the couple raised money, they were able to install a “state of the art” mikvah, Raskin said. The ceremonial opening ceremony, which was held on the last night of Hanukkah, featured the usual l’chaims but also, as fitting for the location, reggae.
The World Jewish Congress estimates there are 200 to 400 Jewish residents in Jamaica. Raskin said the community is spread out geographically, making it difficult to assemble minyans during the tourism offseason. But there are occasions when many Jews from outside Montego Bay will make the trek to celebrate festivals.
“Rosh Hashanah, Passover, we have locals who will come in for the special holidays,” he said.
Raskin acknowledged many of the people who will benefit from the mikvah will be tourists. Prior to the pandemic, more than 4.3 million people visited the small Caribbean island each year, around 200,000 of which are Jewish, according to Raskin. In fact, the first person to use the mikvah was an Israeli bride who had traveled to Jamaica for her wedding.
“It’s very, very exciting and you know, she was able to have the proper experience,” said Raskin.
While the mikvah allows the Raskins to more fully serve their congregants’ spiritual needs, they have also tended to their more earthly requirements: In 2017, they opened Jamaica’s first kosher restaurant, complete with jerk chicken.