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Former NH rabbi reaches out to Irma victims

New Hampshire Sunday News

September 16. 2017 8:10PM
Soldiers with the U.S. Army's 602nd Area Support Medical Company walk under a rainbow to the U.S. Virgin Island's main hospital, Schneider Regional Medical Center, in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, Sept. 14, 2017. (REUTERS/Jonathan Drake)

As the Jewish high holidays approach, the thoughts and prayers of a former Manchester rabbi are with friends far away, on an island devastated by Hurricane Irma.

Arthur Starr was a popular religious leader in Manchester, serving for years as the rabbi of Temple Adath Yeshurun. In 2002, he and his wife Linda moved to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where a historic synagogue serves about 120 families.

Starr is retired now; he and Linda returned to the mainland about three years ago, splitting their time between western Massachusetts and south Florida. Last weekend, as Irma bore down on St. Thomas, they watched and worried.

Rabbi Starr has since been in touch with some former congregants via spotty email and cellphone service. They tell him that he "wouldn't recognize the place," he said.

"So many of the homes are just totally destroyed."

His friends all survived the storm. The synagogue, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and a National Historic Landmark, also got through the hurricane relatively unscathed.

There was some water damage but nothing major, Starr said. "It's withstood many, many hurricanes and other threats over the years, but it's holding OK."

The St. Thomas synagogue has never missed holding a Sabbath service since it was built in 1833 and islanders didn't let Irma break that chain, Starr said.

With a curfew going into effect at 6 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 8, as the storm bore down on them, Starr said, the rabbi held services an hour early.

Starr was on St. Thomas for Hurricane Omar in 2008. "It was aiming right for us, but it turned at the last moment."

Likewise, Irma looked to be heading right for his winter home in West Palm Beach, Fla. But it, too, turned at the last moment and instead pummeled the west coast of Florida. His friends have checked on his house and it's fine, he said.

It will take a long time for the islanders on St. Thomas, who are American citizens, to get back on their feet, Starr said. "They'll recover, but it's going to take a long time," he said.

"It's probably years before tourism comes back. Every tree has been defoliated. There are no palm branches.

"It looks like a war zone."

The saddest thing for him, Starr said, is "the people and knowing what they're suffering through.

"St. Thomas always had its problems, as a tropical island, getting things," he said. "Food was expensive and not always available.

"Just knowing how terrible things are now, it hurts."'

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