Tangier Island—a proud friend to Israel in the Chesapeake Bay

by | Sep 19, 2014 | Other News

by Betsy Karotkin

In July, Eddie and I set sail for two and one half weeks on the Chesapeake Bay, as we do each summer. I don’t know which of us looks forward to it more. Our days are spent navigating, watching for crab pots (a real hazard to boaters), for shoals, for changes in wind direction, plotting our course to the next port and continually checking our coordinates and charts. When winds are gentle and seas are calm, we even have time to do crossword puzzles together, for which we never tire.

One of the marinas that seems to draw us back each year is the unique island of Tangier, situated in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, about 12 miles off the Eastern shore of Virginia. Get ready to step back in time. Access to the island is by boat or plane only. Believed to have been founded by Captain John Smith back in the early 1600s, the island was originally home to about seven or eight families from Cornwall, England. Graveyards dot the front yards of homes and street corners where the names of Parks, Crockett, Thomas, Eskridge and a few others are engraved on head stones everywhere.

The people of Tangier are watermen, mostly crabbers, who eke out a living from the waters of the Chesapeake. The crabs they bring in during the hours when we are sleeping are already in the seafood markets of New York by midday. Sleeping on our boat, we can hear and see the crabbers as they leave for work in their fishing boats around 2:30 am each morning, returning sometime around noon. While the warm weather might make this lifestyle seem rather romantic, not so in the winter when they often return covered in ice.

The islanders still speak with a trace of an Elizabethan accent and often it can be difficult to understand the watermen when they are talking among themselves. But they are a warm, friendly, proud people who love their island and their way of life.

In the past two years, while bike riding around the island, Ed and I noticed an Israeli flag flying alongside the American flag over one of the homes. This year we decided to see who the owner was. Our good friend, Milton Parks, the dock master of the island, told us it belongs to the Mayor of Tangier, Ooker Eskridge. That night, who should be sitting next to us at dinner, but Mayor Eskridge. We thanked him profusely for his support of Israel and he began to tell us his story. It seems that members of the Methodist Church on the Island had a difference of opinion on Israel. Ooker and all of the members who wanted to actively support Israel broke away from the church and founded The New Church, which is non-denominational.

As we were heading out of the Tangier Harbor, another Israeli flag greeted us – it was flying once again with the American flag above Ooker’s crab shed. All of a sudden, a fishing boat appeared on the side of our boat—it was Ooker wishing us a safe return trip. On his boat is the Christian symbol of the fish alongside a Jewish star.

When we returned to our home, I sent photos to our children, who immediately noticed that the Israeli flag was pretty weather beaten. The stars were aligned, for in a few weeks our good friends from Israel, Nili and Charlie Coral, would be coming to visit. I told them about Tangier and asked if they would bring two Israeli flags that we could present to Mayor Eskridge.

With not enough time to sail to Tangier and back with our friends, we drove to Onancock and took the ferry to Tangier. It was an absolutely wonderful day. Before leaving the island, we presented the flags to Ooker. He had organized a group of his watermen friends to meet with us so that Charlie could tell them the story of how he came to Virginia Beach as the chief electrical engineer with Israel Aircraft Industries in 1985 for a joint venture with the American Navy and Air Force. The watermen were eager to know about Israel and expressed their warm feelings and support.

Only about 450 people are left on Tangier. The young people often go away to college and few return to take up the hard life of a waterman. To add to their concern over the future, the island is losing land every year as the Chesapeake waters rise.

With all that has occurred in the Mideast during this summer and the unjustified condemnation of Israel by so many around the world, it feels good to know that there are people who are not afraid to speak out on behalf of our beloved Israel, even though it caused a rift in their church. Perhaps they are the “Righteous Gentiles” of our time.

I often think about what Eli Wiesel said in Legends of Our Time, “It must be emphasized that the victims suffered more…from the indifference of the onlookers than from the brutality of the executioner…. It was the silence of those he believed to be his friends…which broke his heart.”

Go to Tangier, book passage on the Onancock Ferry and travel back in time and thank Mayor Eskridge and his congregants for standing by us. It will be a trip worthwhile in every respect.