Alvin Berkun has discovered a couple of “fringe benefits” to being a rabbi.
The first, he joked, is his tallis; the second is the opportunity to travel the world on luxury cruise liners.
Berkun, rabbi emeritus of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation and a longtime member of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, has been traveling the high seas for five decades, leading services and delivering lectures to passengers sailing during the High Holidays, Passover and Chanukah.
A former Navy chaplain, frequent cruising allows Berkun to keep his sea legs, he said.
“I’ve always had an interest in ships,” said Berkun. “I started doing cruises in 1974, and I have lost count of how many I have been on.”
The duration of the cruises on which Berkun serves is typically 14 to 30 days, he said, and the gigs have afforded him the chance to travel to such locales as Australia, South America, Europe, China, Egypt, Jordan and Dubai.
“It’s really a great vacation,” he said. “Every day, you stop someplace different and exotic.”
Often, Berkun is not the only member of the clergy retained by the cruise line. Sometimes there are also a priest and a minister on board, he said.
His primary responsibilities while on the ship are to lead Shabbat and holiday services and Passover seders. The lectures he delivers are tailored to non-Jewish passengers and cover topics such as “Everything you always wanted to know about Judaism but never had a rabbi to ask” or “Popes I’ve met,” he said. Berkun has long been active in the interfaith community and has met Pope Francis, among others.
The lectures, he said, help to start an interfaith dialogue and are well attended, particularly during those long days at sea when the ship does not dock.
Although he declined to identify the cruise companies he serves, he noted that they all have been well equipped to accommodate Jewish passengers who wish to observe rituals as well as kashrut. Most ships, he said, have a supply of Reform siddurs, and while Berkun is a Conservative rabbi, he conducts the service according to “the text that everyone has.” The ships provide strictly kosher food — and new plates and utensils — for the Passover seders, he said, which usually attract from 25 to 30 people.
“The cruise companies are remarkable,” he said. “They really put themselves out to accommodate us. They bend over backwards.”
Berkun takes it upon himself to make sure that the holidays are observed in ways appropriate halachically as well as in accordance with ship regulations. For example, because there are restrictions to burning candles on cruise ships, during Chanukah Berkun generally brings his own menorah for a public lighting and does not leave it until the candles are extinguished. Candles are not permitted in individual cabins.
In addition to offering a great travel experience, Berkun said, cruise ships can also provide a serious test of faith, particularly on Yom Kippur.
“One of my favorites things is that people show no greater faith than when they are on a cruise ship on Yom Kippur, and they tell the staff they are fasting in front of large platters of food,” he said. “The staff looks at them like they are crazy.”
Having a rabbi aboard ship can add a lot to the experience of Jewish passengers, according to Malori Asman, owner of Amazing Journeys, who has been leading Jewish singles’ cruises since 1993.
“The rabbis on board cruise ships can bring together those Jewish passengers who are traveling separately,” Asman said. “They can turn that group of strangers into a Jewish community at sea.”
There is often a “comfort level” Jewish passengers find in connecting with Jews from other locales, she added.
“Once the rabbi gathers the Jewish passengers together for a service, that can open the door to lots of friendships. It gives people a common denominator, a commonality that shines above all else.”
Sometimes Jews who do not attend services while at home will make it a point to “find these services while they are on board a ship,” Asman said. “Once they find it, it becomes a place where everyone gathers.”
While it has been about a year since Berkun served as a cruise rabbi, that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t been cruising. In fact, he just returned last week from sailing to Puerto Rico, St. Kitts and St. Maarten with about 60 Conservative rabbis affiliated with the Retired Rabbis of the Rabbinical Assembly of America. Berkun is program vice chair of that organization.
“It was a win-win,” Berkun said. “Every morning there was a lecture, a discussion, and there were services three times a day.”
For Shabbat, the rabbis opened up the services to the entire ship and attracted about 300 worshippers, he added.
For Berkun, cruising evokes memories of his time serving in the Navy.
“Being aboard a ship is part of who I am,” he said.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.