As North Korea continues to ratchet up tensions with its nuclear tests, Jews on the western Pacific island directly in the firing line are finding inspiration in the fortitude of Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip.
Guam has been caught in the middle of muscle-flexing by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump in recent weeks, with Kim threatening to fire a nuclear weapon at the U.S. territory and tropical island. That muscle-flexing continued Sunday when the North conducted its sixth and by far most powerful nuclear test to date.
Guam’s residents, including the island’s small but passionate Jewish and Jew-ish community, are now trying to wrap their heads around a potential North Korean nuclear attack – during which they would have only minutes to find shelter.
“Thinking about where you can get to safety in a matter of 15 minutes has become an ongoing joke here – a scary joke,” 27-year-old Ben Schiff told Haaretz by telephone. “I’ve visited Israel a couple of times, and what we’re experiencing in Guam is pretty similar.”
Schiff, who works at an animal hospital, said he admires Israelis for their steadfast demeanor in the face of threats by Hamas in Gaza. And that attitude is also prevalent in Guam. “Despite the North Korea stuff, everyone’s still going to work, going to the beach,” he said.
The strategic territory of Guam was acquired by the United States as a spoil of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Indigenous Chamorro and Filipino populations make up over half of Guam’s population today, and the U.S. Army owns a third of the island.
There is a Jewish and interfaith community of around 100 on the island, although many active participants are actually Christians who have taken an interest in Israel and Judaism. A core group is seeking to invigorate Jewish life further, and high holy day plans are underway.
This year’s Rosh Hashanah celebration, for example, will be held either in a Catholic Church or a small hotel owned by a Jewish resident, said Guam resident Marcus McManus, who helps facilitate the community’s Jewish life.
McManus himself was born Catholic but considers himself a Messianic Jew, meaning he believes Jesus to be the Messiah but also practices elements of Judaism and Jewish tradition too. Asked about the situation with North Korea, he immediately drew the comparison to Israel. “Our level of fear is almost like it is in Israel,” he said. “Everybody knows there’s the possibility of danger, but you brush it off because you just can’t live like that.”
Some Guam residents, including McManus and Schiff, are in touch with Akiva Ben-Ezra, a yeshiva student and online marketing consultant based in Jerusalem who has been helping the community plan events and find new recruits through periodical visits.
“There might not be a big Jewish community on Guam, but it doesn’t mean there can’t be an awareness about Jews on Guam,” said Schiff, adding that people relate to Judaism more after learning more deeply about it and not just the stereotypes.
The history of Jewish life on the island is a celebrated one, particularly during World War II when U.S. troops recaptured Guam from the Japanese in 1944. Some 1,500 U.S. Jewish military servicemen sat down for Rosh Hashanah services and dinner in a B-29 Superfortress airplane hangar on the island in 1945.
From 1976 onward, a military chapel-turned-synagogue hosted the once-large number of Jewish personnel in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force. Traveling rabbis from the Chabad movement paid Guam a visit in 2009, hoping to ignite a spark in the community.
Though the chapel has since been closed to the public and the average Guamanian is likely more interested in attending the on-base “GlowRage Paint Party” slated for the same evening as the Jewish New Year, Ben-Ezra and his recently forged contacts are hoping the festive season is just the beginning of a rejuvenated island Yiddishkeit.
“The Jews of Guam appreciate being Jews, but island culture is slower, things take time,” observed Ben-Ezra. “We’re interfaith as well, and open to Christians and others who want to come learn.”
Schiff, meanwhile, is busy making plans regardless of the North Korean threat. “We fundraised to get a Torah out here, and have now invested into building an ark – I don’t know, maybe we can get rabbis out here and start having a little proper synagogue,” he said, adding, “It’s a dream, but not impossible.”
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