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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Diamond Head, a Hawaii state park and monument, is at the southern tip of Oahu, east of Waikiki. (Photo by Elizabeth Kratz)

Elizabeth Kratz, in the background, found snorkeling the coral reef to be a meaningful, fun and accessible adventure in Hawaii. (Photo courtesy of Ocean Joy Cruises)

Guests at Chabad of Hawaii are welcomed with a surfboard emblazoned with a Bruchim Haba’im message. (Photo by Elizabeth Kratz)

A Hawaiian green sea turtle suns itself on the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach on the Big Island. (Photo by Elizabeth Kratz)

Rebbetzin Pearl Krasnjansky is the co-director of Chabad of Hawaii. (Photo by Elizabeth Kratz)

Oahu—When my husband told me his next conference of the ISLH, the International Society of Laboratory Hematologists, would be held in Honolulu, my ears perked up just a bit (that’s an understatement; I pretty much hopped up and down with excitement). It had been a long, cold winter in New Jersey. Since I grew up near the beach in California, I have always heard about how California’s lovely beaches just don’t match the incomparable beauty of Hawaii’s landscape, which encompasses the magnificent coral reef; the abundant indigenous wildlife; and of course the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

With the help of my mom and sister-in-law, I arranged to join my husband on his trip, leaving my children at home so they could enjoy their Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations in school and get some of that coveted “Grammy and Aunt Mandy time.” I hasten to note that Hawaii’s outdoor attractions would be significantly more limited had I been traveling with my small children, though I hope to return with them when they are teenagers.

My husband’s conference hotel, the Ala Moana, was right next door to the Chabad of Hawaii, so I wasted no time contacting them to ask my questions. Rabbi Itchel and Rebbetzin Pearl Krasnjansky came to Honolulu almost three decades ago as young shluchim for the Lubavitcher Rebbe and, now with their seven children, some of whom still live on the island, have set down roots and grown the community from the inside out. (Their oldest daughter, Suri Tilson, however, lives locally and teaches kindergarten at Tenafly’s Lubavitch on the Palisades.) There are always minyanim and festive meals on Shabbat and Yom Tov (and some minyanim during the week as well when possible), and there is a mikvah available for women, by appointment only.

All my kashrut questions were answered easily and attentively, and I was directed to local grocery stores where I was able to buy fruits, vegetables and major brands bearing national kosher symbols to make lunches and dinners for our day trips. There are no kosher meats or chalav yisroel dairy products available for retail purchase, so it was our honor to pack a few favorite chalav yisroel items to bring to the rebbetzin from New Jersey. Since there are no kosher restaurants in Hawaii, we also brought a few deli meats and hard cheeses, and ordered some delicious, freshly prepared fleishig meals from Oahu Kosher (http://www.oahukosher.com), a catering company with a la carte weekday and Shabbat options led by another Lubavitcher couple, Chef Yudi and Estee Weinbaum, members of the local community in Oahu.

We also signed up to join the Chabad community for Shabbat meals, and we even enjoyed our first-ever “International Dateline Shabbat,” savoring the novelty of not performing any activity forbidden on Shabbat mid’Oraita (directly from the Torah) on Thursday night through Friday at sunset. We did this due to a halachic uncertainty that our rabbanim at home had explained regarding visitors who approach the International Dateline, which Rebbetzin Krasnjansky noted is not part of their minhag or observance. As they live there year round, there is no machloket (Torah debate) that Shabbat occurs from sunset Friday to sundown Saturday, just like everywhere else. However, ever welcoming and supportive, they invited me to bench licht (light candles) in the Chabad house on Thursday night. On Shabbat, the rabbi and rebbetzin shared beautiful and inspiring words of Torah relating to Sefirah and the weekly parsha with the approximately 70 guests, comprising both locals and visitors, whose incessant conversation and playing of Jewish geography lasted before, during and far past the spirited mealtimes. I very much enjoyed attending the rebbetzin’s weekly Torah class for women after mincha. Chabad of Hawaii was a majestic port for us on this beautiful, unforgettable island, and I urge you to make plans to visit these special shluchim as soon as you can.

With our spiritual needs fully cared for, we could then turn to the fun and extremely accessible adventuring, and my wish to find a way to make the special oseh ma’aseh bereshit (Who reenacts the work of creation) bracha, a blessing one can make upon seeing something that has existed from the time of Hashem’s six days of creation, essentially a natural wonder. At first my husband and I thought we would be able to make the bracha together when we took a day trip on Hawaiian Airlines from Honolulu/Oahu to “The Big Island,” also known as Hawai’i, to visit the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, the home of Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano, which has erupted 33 times since 1843, and still flows active lava. However, while we had a wonderful and instructive time there (learning about volcanoes, the formation of rock and a volcano’s magma, which, only when it reaches the earth’s surface is called lava), we only saw the glow of the lava from the volcanic crater for a minute or two before our tour bus had to take us back to catch our flight “home” to Honolulu.

But the Big Island was by no means a wasted day—quite the opposite. Our bus tour was with Robert’s Hawaii (https://www.robertshawaii.com/), one of the region’s oldest tour companies, which has been giving tours since 1941—18 years before Hawaii was even a US state! We enjoyed visiting Rainbow Falls and seeing chameleon lizards all over. It was a thrill to see mango, guava, lychee and papaya trees as well as fiddleback ferns growing essentially in the wild, or in people’s back yards, in addition to colorful birds and wild chickens. We also saw the island birds’ natural predator, the mongoose, a long-tailed, light brown animal (part of the cat or hyena family that was introduced to Hawaii to eradicate the black rat, and failed, as rats are nocturnal and mongooses are diurnal) that runs fast, flush to the ground, and eats birds, insects, snakes, lizards and crabs. Our tour guide, who asked us to call him “Cousin Jeff,” told us that mongooses can wrestle down and eat an entire wild chicken, even though mongooses are about the same size as the squirrels we see at home. Also on the Big Island, we visited the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, featuring massive Hawaiian green sea turtles sunning themselves on volcanic, jet-black jagged rock; fish in the crystal-clear bay waters; and a lush tropical landscape. We also made the obligatory visit to the OU-certified Mauna Loa macadamia nut factory. We missed visiting the Big Island’s famous Kona coffee plantations, as it was just not possible to do everything the Big Island had to offer in one day.

Back on Oahu, my husband and I took an hour-long “doors-off” helicopter trip around the island with Novictor Helicopters (https://novictorhelicopters.com/). Though you might be shocked, I didn’t think helicoptering by air without doors was a particularly daredevil experience. Novictor crew members told us they have never had an accident and the doors-off experience just means it’s a little more windy and one’s picture taking is not hindered by glass. Our tour on a beautiful, clear morning featured aerial views of the entire island, including Diamond Head State Park, Jurassic Valley (where Jurassic Park was filmed, and where great hikes and ATV riding are available), the Dole pineapple fields and factory, the North Shore and its incredible coral reef (so bright white it’s visible from the air) and world-famous surf, as well as Pearl Harbor, Hawaii’s number one tourist destination, which welcomes 1.8 million people to its visitors center annually. From the air, we could see the sunken battleship tomb of the USS Arizona through the clear water. The same type of helicopter option was also recommended to us if we planned to visit other islands such as Maui or Kauai, but we unfortunately only had time for two of the eight Hawaiian islands on this trip.

We also took a stunning sunset cruise up to and back from Diamond Head, on a Hawaii Glass Bottom Boat (https://hawaiiglassbottomboats.com/), a 50-foot catamaran that touts closed glass portholes in the bottom of the boat to see the reef scenery below. Because the water was somewhat murky the evening we went, likely due to the wave pattern, wildlife was not visible on our cruise, and we were invited back to join them again for a discount. But we still had a wonderful time enjoying the unlimited beverages, alcoholic and non, and watched the sun go down over the deep blue water.

With my husband’s conference starting, I then spent the next two days solo (and making new friends) on two separate boat snorkeling expeditions on two coasts of Oahu. My Hydrochic skirt and rashguard swimsuit (which I bought through an ad printed by The Jewish Link last summer!) and the person wearing it, had never been so excited. I used Hawaii Nautical (https://www.hawaiinautical.com/) for a trip off the coast of Waikiki, near our hotel, and Ocean Joy Cruises (http://www.oceanjoycruises.com/) for a crack-of-dawn departure trip off the Waianae (western) coast of Oahu. Ocean Joy was more expensive than Hawaii Nautical, as the Ocean Joy catamaran was “more fancy,” with a few more amenities, and travels out about 40 miles to a quieter part of the coral reef, where more fish are visible. We also saw a wonderfully large pod of 30 to 40 Hawaiian spinner dolphins which, true to their name, leapt off the water and spun right in front of us. It was actually sort of unbelievable, and oddly, it seemed like the dolphins knew we were enjoying the show. However, Hawaii Nautical, at half the price, took us out on a great day for snorkeling with sea turtles, and I swam with about half a dozen of these gigantic, beautiful creatures, so they were both excellent experiences.

Both of my snorkeling trips also included a buffet lunch, but I brought my own kosher snacks and no one noticed or cared. Plus, who wants to eat when there’s so much to see? Both crews offered lovely options for both non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages.

While I am a strong swimmer and a former camp lifeguard/water safety instructor, I had not snorkeled probably in 25 years. “Believe me, the technology has not changed,” my Hawaii Nautical crew captain assured me. Snorkeling is by no means difficult for beginners, and a good number of the people on each of my trips were snorkeling for the first time. The water is warm and refreshing year round. Each day, the boat’s captain and crew went over the same brief sets of directions and safety protocols, and every snorkeler, experienced or not, is, by contract, required to wear a life jacket, though strong swimmers do not have to inflate them. My uninflated life jacket did not hinder my swimming. We also were issued fins, a mask and snorkel.

Thus equipped, the fun really began. As soon as my mask went underwater, and I adjusted to being a “mouth breather,” I was able to see and fully enjoy the amazing and colorful wildlife that thrives just beneath the surface of the 30-foot-deep coral reef, which houses all kinds of marine life. One sea turtle came so close to me I could have reached out and touched it, but we had been warned not to because it’s apparently illegal for humans to touch these endangered animals; we were told if we touched them, the oils on our hands would give them tumors, plus touching them incurs a $7,000 fine. As if another disincentive were needed, I did see a sign at the black sand beach telling people not to touch turtles because they bite!

I also saw sea urchins, coral and fish in practically every color of the rainbow. Swimming right on the coral reef in the Pacific Ocean, I was finally inspired to say my special bracha when I saw one of the most unusual and beautiful fish I have ever seen, and I’m not even sure what it was (striped, yellow, white, black and blue, with two tails)! I took back to snorkeling “like a fish to water,” and was thrilled to be the first one in and one of the last out on my second day.

Two things to note: If whale watching is on your bucket list, go to Hawaii from December through April, when your boats will virtually guarantee humpback whale sightings. Second, if you are with a group and don’t feel like spending a lot of money, you can see the same coral reef I did by swimming out from many beaches, with snorkel gear, scuba or “snuba” (half snorkel, half scuba) gear, or of course try out surfing or surf paddling on the world famous North Shore. I was told one of the best local places near Waikiki for beach snorkeling is Hanauma Bay, and for approximately $10 one can rent gear and lockers to place your valuables.

Finally, regarding transport: We used Uber to get around with great success (just as good as New York/New Jersey, and cheaper than taxis), though many of our excursions offered complimentary hotel rides from Waikiki. The Uber drivers were, as ever, great local sources of suggestions from the more authentic, less touristy perspective. But most people come to Hawaii wanting the tourist experience, and the locals know how to provide that as well, in spades.

All in all, Hawaii is a beautiful place, and if you love nature or beaches, I urge you to consider it for your next vacation. Be sure to get in touch with Chabad of Hawaii and visit them at http://www.chabadofhawaii.com/ to support their important work, which most recently included hosting over 170 people for Pesach sedarim, and helping to cater two separate 50-person sedarim. They help Israelis and other Jews who live and work there to kasher their kitchens and put up mezuzot, and assist many travelers like us in ensuring regular access to kosher food, minyanim and a mikvah. They even have a small school. The Chabad of Hawaii and/or Oahu Kosher Catering help families plan special events such as weddings, anniversary parties and sheva brachot. Chabad is in need of funds to stay in their current building, which is across the street from the Honolulu Convention Center at the entrance to Waikiki. You may donate online, send checks to 410 Atkinson Dr, Honolulu, HI 96814 or call the office at 808-735-8161. They await your visit and you may, in fact, hear a greeting in the Chabad House that I’ve never heard anywhere else: Shaloha!

Learn more about the Krasnjanskys and get Hawaii visitor FAQ here:
http://www.chabadofhawaii.com/templates/articlecco_cdo/aid/115473/jewish/Tourist-Info.htm

By Elizabeth Kratz