In the days after Hurricane Dorian ravaged the islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco in the Bahamas, many focused on sending food, water and hygiene products to those affected by the storm.
But for Sholom Bluming, the island nation’s only rabbi — who had been leading a small congregation of Jews in the country long before the devastation — there was one need that he saw being overlooked: addressing the mental health of the children.
“I found myself walking around the shelters and I saw these children were lonely; they were scared and they had nothing left,” he said.
Bluming, 32, the spiritual leader of the only Jewish center in the Bahamas, Chabad of the Bahamas, quickly mobilized, reaching out to business owners and organizations, securing warehouses in Freeport and ordering water and other supplies for the thousands in need. Within three days, Bluming boarded a plane from Nassau to Freeport and spoke to community leaders to get a better sense of what was needed. With his connections, he set up 17 distributions sites where people could get meals, water, generators and other supplies.
And while meeting the most immediate needs of those affected by storm was his first priority, the idea quickly came to him that there had to be safe spaces for children, so they could play, read and talk to counselors after the trauma of the Category 5 storm, whose nearly 200 mph winds and rain deluge decimated Freeport and the Abaco islands.
“Children needed to feel like children again,” he said. “Their whole world as they knew it was gone.”
According to the Bahamas government, 53 people have been confirmed dead from Dorian. Many in the Abacos and Grand Bahama lost everything and remain traumatized. There was no question, Bluming said, that he needed to be there for the victims, especially the tiniest of them.
As he walked the streets of Freeport in the days after the storm, the message became very clear to him. When he gave a little girl a doll, she held it tight and cried.
“She said it reminded her of the doll she had on her bed when the storm hit,” he said.
Then he encountered two school-aged boys sitting outside their destroyed home, looking sad and lonely. He gave them a board game and their faces lit up. There was another boy who had a simple request — a hug. Bluming obliged.
Those encounters gave Bluming the idea of doing more by creating a physical space — in most cases a tent — where they can be separated from their reality for a while. With no school in session, the children wanted to be able to play and create. Bluming reached out to local organizations and started getting volunteers, including therapists and counselors, to man the centers.
Jewel Major, of Grace Missions in New Providence, said organizations on the ground have come together to create safe spaces for children and are training volunteers to recognize their needs and how to help them. At one of the largest shelters where about 1,000 people are being housed, they created the Love Tent.
Inside the tent, children are invited to color, participate in group games, pray and tell stories. On a recent day, a large group of kids were being taken to a pool to learn how to swim. Another group of kids made picture frames and a professional photographer came to snap a photo of them.
“We are finding that a lot of children want to share their stories,” Major said. “Life as they knew it is no longer the same. They are looking for some normalcy.”
Henry Cooper, a volunteer who lives in Grand Bahama, is grateful for Bluming’s foresight.
“It is a blessing for them to be here in the country,” said Cooper. “They know the need and have made it clear they are not going anywhere. We are very grateful for that.”
The Jewish community in the Bahamas — unlike many other island nations — is fairly young, Bluming said. About 40 to 50 years ago, Jews started settling in Nassau and other parts of the island, but no brick and mortar synagogue was built. Today, they meet in a storefront.
Several years ago, Bluming, who is originally from New York and was ordained in the Rabbinical Seminary of Los Angeles in 2007, visited Nassau and realized quickly “there was a thirst” for a Jewish community. He said he found “a very welcoming place in the Bahamas,” which is a largely Christian community. He and his wife, Sheera, moved there.
Bluming adheres to the Chabad Lubavitch philosophy, a movement that focuses on inclusion and community outreach. He began reaching out and learned there were a lot of Jews, but no one was bringing them together.
The congregation Bluming created mainly comprises people who have relocated from other places around the world. Because it is the only option for Jews in the Bahamas, the community is made up people from every branch of Judaism including Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.
Every weekend there are about 50 worshipers for Shabbat, which begins at sundown Friday and runs through sundown Saturday. For Jewish holidays, the group gets bigger with tourists joining in.
When Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown Sunday, Bluming is expecting more than 100 people to gather in a hotel ballroom, to pray together and reflect on the year.
Bluming said the holiday is especially meaningful this year because Rosh Hashana is a time for self awareness and accountability.
“On Rosh Hashana we are called upon to answer to ourselves and are challenged to find where we can make the world around us better,” he said.
As Bluming gets ready for his sermon, he will talk about renewal and growth. He will likely speak about his experiences over the last several weeks and share stories of resilience and strength.
“There is no doubt in my mind that every Jew around the world will be praying for the people of the Bahamas for comfort and healing and the strength to rebuild,” he said. “Rosh Hashana is a time we pray not just for ourselves but for all of humanity. It is time where we are given a chance to start anew.”
Before the storm even left the islands, Bluming began working on logistics of getting help to those in need. He said people from South Florida and nationwide began reaching out to him to offer money and supplies. Since the storm, thousands of dollars have poured in from donations around the world, he said.
Among the organizations that reached out: The Greater Miami Jewish Federation, which has organized its own effort and has allocated $20,000 to the Chabad’s relief fund. The Chabad is one of several groups the Federation has supported for Hurricane Dorian relief.
“We knew they were on the ground doing good work and we wanted to support their efforts,” said Michelle Labgold, the chief planning officer for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.
B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton, working with the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, has also been working with Bluming.
“We found out that even though the Bahamas has a small Jewish population, the Chabad has a presence, and an extraordinary rabbi,” said Ron Gallatin, who leads the TLC social outreach program at B’nai Torah.
“We have decided to partner with Rabbi Bluming because our due diligence with several Bahamian ministers and a former U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas made it clear he had the ear of the government, was of impeccable character, and would work tirelessly to help all in need.”
Bluming, meanwhile, continues to visit Freeport.
“One of my missions was not just to send relief in containers,” Bluming said. “I wanted to be on the ground. I felt something in me as a rabbi and as a Jew that it’s my calling to do whatever I could to help my neighbors.”