Ahoy, rabbis who sail the seas during High Holy Day services

WASHINGTON — Cruising on luxury liners while holding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services — could this be the greatest gig a rabbi could hope for?

In some ways, yes, but it's not a free ride, and it's not for everyone. Nevertheless, many rabbis will be setting sail on passenger ships this High Holy Day season with hopes of starting off a spiritually meaningful New Year for vacationers and themselves.

Most cruise lines have rabbis on board for the High Holy Days, Chanukah and Passover. Cruise representatives say there has been interest in religious services for years.

Rabbi Bernie Lipnick spent several High Holy Days on the open seas — including trips to Alaska.

There isn't a real "High Holiday atmosphere" on a cruise, laments Lipnick, but some people still prefer to leave home and the stress of the holidays behind.

For Lipnick, who retired from his pulpit at B'nai Amoona in St. Louis, Mo., after 40 years, running a one-hour service with no Torah on Rosh Hashanah was certainly different.

But everyone was happy with the service, and Lipnick felt the experience was "an escape."

Even though one usually associates the seas with fish, it was a different animal that gave Lipnick one of his most memorable cruising stories.

Once, Lipnick was surprised to see a woman with a seeing-eye dog attending his service.

But more surprising was that after Lipnick gave his sermon the dog — who was trained never to leave his owner's side — jumped up, ran over to Lipnick, put his paws on the rabbi's shoulders and licked his face.

"It was the warmest reception of any sermon I'd ever given," Lipnick said.

Satisfied passengers are what the cruise lines want to see. Many lines — including Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Carnival — keep a list of rabbis who may serve for the High Holy Days.

On some ships run by Cunard Lines, more than 100 people attend High Holy Day services.

Cunard and other lines use an agency to help schedule clergy and keep their lists current. Compass Speakers contracts with luxury cruise lines and claims a "great selection" of up to 40 rabbis.

The need for rabbis is growing, according to Niklas Sardana, the company's president.

"Every major luxury liner will have a rabbi," Sardana said. "If there's no rabbi, there are major complaints."

The Queen Elizabeth II even has a synagogue with a Torah on board.

Despite rabbis' growing interest, many cruise lines are cutting costs, and the benefits once bestowed on clergy are not as plentiful as they used to be.

Years ago, cruise lines paid for airfare and gave either free or heavily discounted room and board to a rabbi and spouse. Now, rabbis should take a look at the fine print. While discounts on board still apply for them, they probably do not for their spouses, and most often the airfare is not included.

The rabbis who take advantage of this special kind of job — whether they are retirees or nonpulpit rabbis — should know that luxury liners expect rabbis to socialize with other passengers and perhaps dine at the captain's table, Sardana said.

"You have to have a friendly, outgoing personality," Sardana said.

Rabbi David Baron of Temple Shalom for the Arts in Los Angeles has served as a rabbi on a cruise during the High Holy Days and now works as a placement director for Holland America and Carnival cruise lines.

Baron has worked to make the High Holy Day passengers feel a little more at home. He's made sure some chefs know how to make round raisin challahs for Rosh Hashanah — and some ships offer herring for Yom Kippur break fasts.

He's even written a siddur, or prayer book, for services aboard ships. The "Sacred Space" prayer book includes prayers for a safe journey and psalms for contemplating the beauty of the ocean.

About 20 percent of cruise passengers are Jewish, according to Baron, who helped place 14 rabbis to lead holiday services this season. Those rabbis will also lead services on Shabbat and possibly lead tours in cities they stop at during the cruise.

Baron keeps a list of mostly Reform rabbis, though some are Conservative.

Observant rabbis could have some difficulty with the cruise circuit because ships often have Saturday departure dates and the ships serve non-kosher food, though kosher food is made available if requested.

Ships are often stocked with mostly Reform prayer books, tallitot, and candles, but sometimes rabbis must help secure these supplies.