Monthly archives "May 2019"

Az der Rebbe Geyt: A Rabbi At Sea

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Over the past few years since I entered my 80s, I have been contemplating retirement (I seem to have actually “retired” several times from my several careers, but then, drawn by the attraction of a compelling new interest, I keep on reinventing myself as only “semi-retired”). In the process, I have come to believe that a rabbi never completely retires. Maybe that’s true for many seniors whose passions lie in other fields. In any case, as a non-retired, retired rabbi, I have served as Guest Staff Rabbi for both Passover and the Jewish High Holy Days on a number (seven now) of delightful, lengthy cruises. It has afforded me the luxury of travelling, accompanied by one of my four daughters, to many fascinating, faraway places in the world that I could never have otherwise visited.

As an American, pluralistic rabbi, it has given me the opportunity to explore Jewish communities in other countries, many of them now only a memory recorded in a small museum or a series of plaques, or a “Jew street” where once its inhabitants conducted commerce.  A few communities are small but still vibrant, maintaining customs different from the ones I am used to celebrating at home. Some are still Jewish – despite. I have visited countries like Indonesia where Judaism is not one of their six official religions, and where people with Israeli passports cannot disembark. I have also visited Jewish communities that are still substantial and thriving, such as Australia or Brazil. Or countries like Spain (with a time limit) and, more recently, Portugal (no time limit) which now offer citizenship to Jews who can show ancestry to relatives expelled or persecuted at the time of the Inquisition; or, Morocco, which, in an appealing new spirit of harmony, now welcomes all religions, putting aside the fact that most Moroccan Jews – who had migrated to that country even before the Spanish Inquisition and lived peacefully with the Berbers —  were shamefully persecuted and thus forced to flee when Israel declared itself a state. And I have visited Rhodes in Greece where a tall black memorial records the death in the Holocaust of the 1600 Jews who once lived there. And so on.

So I was taken aback when a more stationary American rabbi asked me a rather startling question the other day: “Do people on cruise ships really want to attend a religious service?” he asked.

“When you’re in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean without sight of land — just seemingly endless waves — for a week before reaching a port,” I replied, “it certainly puts you in a receptive state of mind to find some time to have a conversation with God.”

Actually the passengers on board who identify as Jewish (in my experience, anywhere from 24 on a smaller ship to 68 on a larger ship) welcome the chance to celebrate a sacred Jewish ritual together as a “community within a community.” For me, it is a joyful experience to welcome people who come from different countries, speak various languages and practice diverse traditions, but are still delighted to celebrate on an ocean-going voyage with other Jews. This year at Passover, I asked for volunteers to read “The Four Questions” with Yiddish, French, Spanish, Ladino, and English translations at hand, symbols of some of the countries in which Jews dispersed from the Holy Land had lived for centuries if not thousands of years. Then all the “congregants” at the Seder tables read them together in Hebrew (transliteration provided).

And although the meal was kosher (I spend a lot of time working out the menu with the always cooperative Director of Food Services and the talented Executive Chef), and the wine chosen was an excellent kosher Baron de Hirsch brand, I knew someone would pipe up with, “I usually have Manishevitz,” and of course we did have that square bottle of VERY SWEET wine too.

The tables were gorgeously set with “kept only for Passover” dishes, beautiful scrolled menus, flowers, white tablecloths, place cards, a Haggadah at each place setting, and wine glasses, of course, which the waiters made sure to fill four times on cue. Ceremonial platters containing the symbols of Passover were on each table of eight. The ship’s techies had arranged a microphone for me so that everyone could hear the service and my remarks.

For me, one of the most moving moments occurred before the Seder when a non-Jewish couple asked if they could attend. “Our daughter converted and is married to a Jewish man, and our son-in-law invites us to their home every Passover,” they explained. “We’re far away now, but we’d like to feel close to them.” So they came to the Seder – despite the fact that Good Friday coincided with Passover this year, and there was a priest aboard to lead Easter services — and they enjoyed it immensely. As well, we had a Messianic couple (considering conversion to Judaism) also in attendance.

For the second night, I held a discussion group on “Counting the Omer,” and to my surprise, a considerable group attended. Soon we would begin to stop at ports every day, but people still attended the “Yizkor” (Memorial) service on Friday night, which I coupled with Holocaust remembrance. I invited the priest to recite the 23rd Psalm, which he was delighted to do. He had been a missionary in North Africa for many years and was now the Director of his country’s missions in various places.

We did have one controversy aboard as to whether Passover should be seven or eight days. We settled on seven days (which is the modern norm in Israel and also Reform congregations), but if anyone preferred eight days, that was okay too. We still had plenty of matzah at hand.

Lots of good, often very accomplished people. And, oh yes, since we had a passenger aboard who was born in Morocco, we had a Mimouna, something I had never celebrated before. It’s simply a celebration to mark the end of Passover and features lots and lots of delicious pastries, Moroccan style. In Israel, Mimouna (the name honors Maimonides) is marked by a general Open House, and people go from house to house sampling all the desserts.

So the answer to my fellow rabbi’s question, is “Yes, it’s really possible to conduct religious services on a cruise ship, and many people are happy to come – and, indeed, grateful that these services are provided. Of course, not every cruise line provides this service (unless it’s specifically a Jewish-oriented cruise), and in most cases, it’s left up to the passengers to conduct their own services if they wish to do so.

And no, my friends, I don’t get seasick, and I love being at sea with people from many lands.