Rebbe’s Instructions to ‘Find a Jew in Guyana’ Take On New Meaning

In a twist of hashgacha pratis, shliach to St. Lucia in the Caribbean, Rabbi Avromy Super, brought tefillin and matza to the Jewish son of the presidents of Guyana, fulfilling the Rebbe’s instructions years ago to Rabbi Yitzchok Nemes.

By Uziel Scheiner –

When Rabbi Avromy Super couldn’t find a direct flight home to St. Lucia last October, he was disappointed. The rabbi, who established Chabad-Lubavitch of St. Lucia with his wife, Sternie, in 2019, usually didn’t have trouble finding nonstop flights to his Caribbean home island, but this time the only available flight had a stop in Guyana, a coastal South American country south of St. Lucia. To get home, Super would have to travel 600 miles out of his way.

With St. Lucia home to a permanent Jewish population of around 200—many of whom are part-time residents—Super is accustomed to keeping a keen eye out for Jews in his exotic neighborhood. So when he landed in Guyana’s capital city of Georgetown on his dreaded 24-hour stopover, he brushed off his exhaustion and got to work.

Almost immediately he found two Jews—one named Raphi, owner of a local riverside resort, and Alan, a Jew originally from Antwerp, Belgium, who had been living in Guyana for 13 years. Super met with both, and when it was finally time to catch his connecting flight, they vowed to stay in touch.

Six months later, with Passover fast approaching, Super began going through his list of Jews to send traditional, handmade round Shmurah matzah for the holiday. Along with the Jews of St. Lucia, Super has a Rolodex of Jews he’s met on his travels in the Caribbean with whom he remains in contact, including his new friends in Guyana.

When calculating the shipping rates this year, he realized that it would be more costly to ship the boxes than to fly to each island and deliver them himself. So the rabbi made travel plans to deliver the hand-made matzah, along with the joy of the holiday, in person.

At the same time, through his Jewish contacts in Guyana he’d become aware of at least a dozen Jews living there. One of them, however, the Jewish son of two former presidents of Guyana, he knew of on his own.

The Jewish President and Her Son The Jagan family is all but royalty in Guyana. Cheddi Jagan, the patriarch of the family, founded the People’s Progressive Party in 1950, together with his wife, Janet (née Rosenberg). He served as the Premier of British Guiana from 1961 to 1964 and as president of Guyana from 1992 to 1997.

Jagan’s work and accomplishments in service to Guyana made him an iconic figure in the country, of which he is regarded as a founding father, in some quarters earning him the moniker “Father of the Nation.” The primary airport in Guyana, where Super landed, is named the Cheddi Jagan International Airport.

Janet was a force in her own right. The daughter of Jewish immigrants from Romania and Hungary, Janet was born and raised in Chicago, moving to Guyana after marrying Cheddi Jagan. In 1973, after years of political activism, Janet was elected to Parliament and went on to become the longest-serving member of Guyana’s parliament. After her husband’s death in 1997, Janet was elected president of Guyana, becoming the country’s first female president and Jewish leader. As one of a handful of Jewish heads of state in the world outside of Israel, Janet was by far the most famous Jew in the Caribbean.

Janet Rosenberg Jagan passed away in 2009, 12 years after her husband, and was survived by their two children, Dr. Cheddi (“Joey”) Jagan Jr. and Nadira Jagan-Brancier.

Like most people in the Caribbean, Super had heard of Jagan and his Jewish ancestry, and when he arrived in Guyana before Passover, he resolved to meet Dr. Jagan—a dentist based in Guyana—and give him Shmurah matzah for the Seder.

Guyana’s Jewish community does not have much of an infrastructure, and whomever the rabbi asked did not have any leads to the Jewish son of the former presidents. Most were not even sure how much the Jagans identified with their Jewish identity.

With no toehold to gain an introduction, Rabbi Super came up with a clever solution: walk up to his office door and knock.

‘Find a Jew in Guyana’

Super is not the first Chabad rabbi to arrive in Guyana on a mission to find Jews. Back in the late 1980s, a Brooklyn-based Chassidic stamp dealer named Yitzchok Nemes was commissioned by the government of Guyana to print postage stamps for them. As he always did before setting out on foreign trips, Nemes went to see the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, to ask for a blessing.

“He told the Rebbe he’s going to a place called Guyana,” Nemes’ son, Rabbi Mendel Nemes, told Jewish Educational Media’s My Encounter with the Rebbe oral history project. “The Rebbe gave him [a dollar as well as] a separate dollar and told him to find a Jew in Guyana.”

Arriving in Georgetown, Nemes met with a Belgian Jew working in the country who insisted that he would never find a Jew in the country. “My father said, listen, the Rebbe gave me a dollar, I will find a Jew,” his son recalled. During the duration of his three-week trip, Nemes searched wherever he could, but none of his many contacts could point him in the right direction. It was not until the last few days of his time in Guyana that someone pointed him towards a suburb where there lived a Jewish man by the last name of Solomon.

An assimilated Jew who was married to a Hindu woman, when Mr. Solomon opened his door and found a Chabad businessman from Brooklyn standing there, he was in a state of utter shock. Nemes explained he’d been sent there by the Rebbe, and helped the man don tefillin for the first time. Over the next few days they studied Torah, continuing on every one of Nemes’ many trips to the country. Later, they studied Torah over the telephone, and Mr. Solomon eventually began eating kosher and stopped working on Shabbat. An elderly man when they met, when Solomon passed away a few years later he left a will in which he requested his family bury him in a Jewish cemetery.

With the help of Chabad of Venezuela, Solomon was laid to rest in a Jewish cemetery in Caracas.

A Divinely Providential Meeting

When Super got to Dr. Jagan’s reception area, he introduced himself to the secretary as a visiting rabbi. She disappeared into the back, emerging a few minutes later to usher him into Dr. Jagan’s office.

The president’s son and the rabbi sat together for an hour. They discussed their family backgrounds, Judaism, and Israel. Jagan, who hadn’t previously felt much affiliation with his Judaism, described experiencing a shift since Oct. 7. Feelings that he hadn’t had before began to perk up, and he was left with a sense of care and responsibility for his people. He was excited to see a rabbi in his office and be able to discuss his heritage. At the end of their meeting, Super offered Jagan the opportunity to put on tefillin. Jagan had never heard of them, but after a quick introduction happily wrapped them and recited the Shema prayer for the first time in his life.

Before they parted, Super gave Jagan the box of Shmurah matzah for Passover and promised to stay in touch.

Super continued his trip in Guyana, reconnecting with his Jewish friends there, delivering matzah for their Seders, and holding a Torah class for the handful of Jews he had met over his short visits. “Every article on Guyana’s Jews says only one or two Jewish people live here. On my short visit here, I know that that’s a significant undercount,” Super said. “Just like Rabbi Nemes discovered in the 1980s, when we seek out a fellow Jew with an open heart, we find them.”

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