It happened very fast, unexpectedly so. About eight months ago, I managed to take a seminar for rabbis who were interested in serving in interim positions in congregations, usually for a year. The training, after all, was an additional career skill to have up my sleeve. You never know what’s going to become available. A local Atlanta congregation could open-up for a year and I would be able to do what I enjoyed, close to home and without having to make a long-term commitment.
A couple of months had gone by when Silvia and I were checking my professional rabbinic website for a possible interim position—close by, Atlanta. But nothing looked even remotely promising. One day, after reviewing the website, Silvia told me that an interim position was open “up north”–I don’t even remember where. I recoiled! No way was I going back to snow country. A three year stint in Buffalo, NY was enough for a lifetime. Curious I decided to look at the website closely for other interim opportunities. As it happened, just below the posting for “up north”, an opening was listed, of all places, for Saint Thomas, US Virgin Islands. Later, when Silvia and I were discussing the position, she told me that never before had she seen me react as fast as I did as when I called my professional organization to have my resume sent to the congregation. Within a couple days after it was sent, I received a call from the congregation asking me for a phone interview, which I had on July 10. By August 28, Silvia and I landed in St. Thomas. She helped me settle and after a couple of days she returned to Atlanta with a plan to visit me frequently so that neither one of us would become too lonely. If I believed in the “stars”, I would have to say they were perfectly lined-up for us.
Let me now go back and describe my initial reaction to St. Thomas when Silvia and I came for my face-to-face interview with the congregation. My first impression of the island was warm and hospitable, all made possible by Steve Rockstein, a member of the congregation who picked us from the airport. Steve is large, powerfully built, handsome with a shock of white hair, whose gentleness oozes through his pours. (He and his wife, Leslie, subsequently become wonderful friends to Silvia and me.) For the few days of the interview, we stayed in a bungalow that the Rocksteins usually rent to tourists. The bungalow overlooks lush verdant hills that fall into beautiful, if not magnificent, Magens Bay. St. Thomas, what a beautiful place: the beaches are gorgeous, the weather doesn’t dip much below eighty for a good part of the year, and best of all, jewelry is discounted and there is no sales tax. The booze flows freely, starting at the airport and it can be had in just about any shop as you walk along and do your shopping.
To be honest, had I not initially met the Rocksteins, I might have turned down the position. You might ask: Is he crazy? It’s an island paradise, great weather and wonderful beaches. What’s his problem? Best to explain my state of mind in the following way. After getting a tour of the island, the realization dawned on me that I was in shock, especially after Silvia said to me, as we were resting in the bungalow, “Ron, you look like a deer caught in headlights.” And I said, almost on the verge of tears, “It’s an island! It’s an island! It’s surrounded by water.” Seeing that my reaction to the island was hardly enthusiastic, Silvia reassured me that if I didn’t like the place, there was no reason to take the position. But here I am nevertheless, living alone for a part of the month on a landmass about 18 miles long and perhaps 4 to 5 miles wide. Here on the island there is no Barnes and Nobles, let alone a bookstore. (The one and only bookstore closed its doors about six or seven months ago.) Not even a Starbucks is to be had here. But I have found the Barefoot Buddha, not quite a Starbucks but not too bad. After my initial shock that the island was little more than a third world country, I met the people of the congregation, and they are the overwhelming reason I am here on the island of St. Thomas. Yes, it’s the people, indeed the people! And if you want to understand what I mean, you are going to have to wait for my next blog—coming soon.