Chef Erwin Van Oosten could be forgiven for not knowing what
hit him when the rabbi ordered that the lasagna be sent back into the kitchen.
It was the executive chef’s first full day running the
kitchen for a Caribbean cruise ship full of kosher passengers, and he had
thought all was in order by the time the prodigious luncheon buffet had been
laid out for the guests.
But it turned out the cheese lasagna had been cooked in a
meat tray, and the head mashgiach — the rabbinic supervisor charged with
ensuring that everything was properly kosher — had noticed the mistake before
any guests dug in.
“I was shaking,” the chef recalled later that night in the
elegant dining room of the Wind Surf, the flagship vessel of the luxury line of
Windstar Cruises. The company chartered out the vessel for four weeklong kosher
cruises this winter.
“Kosher is not different as long as you follow the rules,”
the Dutch chef said. “But sometimes we make mistakes.”
Indeed, creating the world’s first all-kosher, all-the-time
cruise required “a learning curve for all of us,” said Matthew Shollar, the man
behind the kosher excursions.
Shollar, 36, a member of Chabad-Lubavitch in Pittsburgh,
joked that the idea emerged when he was looking for a way to celebrate a host
of special occasions in his family — and then he got carried away.
An ocean liner buff since he was a kid, Shollar was familiar
with the cruise business. He had started a cruise marketing Web site in the
late 1990s, e-Cruise, but his company went belly up, along with much of the
He started researching the idea of creating an upscale
kosher cruise experience, and months later his new company, Chosen Voyage, was
For years, many large cruise liners have turned parts of
their kitchens kosher to accommodate groups of kosher passengers, but the
partnership with Windstar was the first attempt to make an entire ship kosher.
A 290- passenger ship complete with sails, the Wind Surf would make everything
kosher — from the champagne to the emergency rations on the lifeboats.
“This is the only kosher experience — hotel or cruise — that
provides 24-hour kosher room service,” Shollar said. Even the crew, he noted,
The extraordinary planning and execution required was a team
effort, with Shollar working closely with the ship’s senior crewmembers and
Peter Davis, the director of charters for Windstar.
The details were endless, from the logistics of kashering
the ship’s three galleys to buying all new china and kosher products to
training the crew — from the captain down to the stewards and housekeeping
staff, most of whom come from Indonesia and the Philippines.
And it wasn’t just the laws of kashrut that needed to be
learned for the voyage, which embarked from Puerto Rico and visited some of the
smaller, more exclusive islands of Virgin Gorda, St. Martin, St. Barths, Nevis
The trip catered to an Orthodox crowd — ranging from Modern
Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox Jews — so staff needed to learn some things about
Sabbath observance and Orthodox social customs. The ship drew up several
manuals and guidelines, including the extensive “Guide to Kosherization.”
A separate manual, “Training Guide — the Onboard Guest
Experience,” detailed the dos and don’ts for interacting with Orthodox guests.
While the manual noted that not all Orthodox “are observant of the issues at
the same level, we will set the bar at a high level that would make any of our
guests feel comfortable.”
The manual described in great detail how men and women who
are not married to each other may act, warning against shaking hands with the
opposite sex and outlining the need to designate separate activity times for
men and women in the pool, fitness center and spa.
“It changed our way of work completely,” said Dalibor
Pocanic, the dining room manager.
He said the months of preparation were made more meaningful
when some of the rabbis involved sat down to explain the whys of kashrut.
Pocanic, who is from Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro, and
has been with Windstar for three years, said it was all very unusual and
interesting for him.
He said he came to appreciate “the way the Jewish people
serve and appreciate God.”
At the beginning of the first cruise, the staff was clearly
“They were scared to use the china to take a drink of
water,” said Reuven Millet, who served as the liaison between Chosen Voyage and
the ship and was credited for making the experience a success.
Even by the third voyage, one waiter was reluctant to offer
a diner more than one selection of herbal tea because he didn’t think the
others were kosher.
When asked what he thought about the idea of kosher, Andy, a
waiter from Indonesia, offered, “It’s different, but I know it’s more
sanitized. I like that they put everything in boiling water to get rid of the
bacteria,” he said, referring to the pre-use dunking of many of the utensils to
make them kosher.
The staff appeared so well-trained that none among the housekeeping
staff even blinked an eye — at least in public — when they were asked to rip up
toilet paper before Saturday so that passengers wouldn’t have to violate the
prohibiting of tearing on the Sabbath.
Even the entertainers had to adjust their acts to
accommodate the clients. The small band hired to play each evening made do
without its lead female singer because Orthodox observance of Jewish law bars
men from hearing women sing.
By the end of the week, many of the crewmembers clearly were
enjoying themselves. When spontaneous dancing broke out in the dining room on
Shabbat, several of the waiters were leading the line, singing and smiling with
For Capt. Mark Boylin, the entire experience was a
“To see the kosherization of the ship and the lengths that
they went to caught us all by surprise,” said Boylin, a native of Beckenham,
When he saw the rabbis with their blowtorches take on the
kitchen ovens, he recalled, “it looked more like a shipyard welding job than
any religious process.”
But in the end, Boylin, who has piloted Windstar charters
for groups as diverse as corporate salespeople, gay men and nudists, took it
all in stride.
“A kosher charter isn’t really all that different when you
come down to it,” he said. “It’s easier to deal with than a bunch of drunken
By week’s end, even the top chef was in full swing, swiftly
ticking off final preparations needed to turn the kitchen into Shabbat mode —
making sure the stove’s burners were on, the food all cooked and the food
The only thing he couldn’t quite understand was why
different rabbis had different standards about what kosher labeling was
acceptable. “Why does one rabbi accept a K and another one not?” he asked with
a hint of frustration.Â Â Â
The ship’s head mashgiach, Rabbi Avrohom Groner, from North
Miami, said the cruise was a real breeze compared to other part-kosher cruises
he has supervised. On this one, he had five deputy kosher supervisors helping
“Before, it was a challenge to make sure there was no
disaster,” the rabbi said. “Here, the challenge is to make sure everything is
The passengers seemed only to have praise for the experience
and the efforts of the ship’s crew.
“What’s really special is that this opens a new avenue for
Orthodox Jews to travel,” said Michael Penn, of Brooklyn, who was traveling
with his wife and two children.
“There’s a certain comfort level” about the whole
experience, said his wife, Joan. “You don’t feel different from the other guests.”
Shollar and his small group of investors, who lost money on
their first kosher-cruise effort due to underbooking, were determined to make
this one work.
“We expect to see profitability in the second year of
operations,” Shollar said.
Shollar already is planning a New York-Bermuda cruise in
late August and hopes to run two Caribbean cruises next winter. “This was a
pioneering endeavor,” said passenger Daniel Frucher, who runs a company,
Leisure Time Tours, that offers kosher-for-Passover experiences in places as
varied as Italy and Phoenix. “My kippah is off to them.” Â