Watching Whales With a Maui Rabbi


By land he’s a rabbi, by sea a whale researcher. For David Glickman, moving to the South Pacific 15 years ago to research endangered humpback whales took him well beyond the ocean’s realm. It also prompted him to become a rabbi on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

Glickman, the son of an Orthodox cantor, grew up observant and eventually became a lay leader among Maui’s estimated few-thousand Jews. Soon Glickman was leading High Holidays services and teaching bar/bat mitzvah students and Hebrew school. He eventually received private smicha from the mainland and was hired by the Jewish Congregation of Maui, which had been holding twice-monthly and High Holidays services since 1985.

His congregation of more than 100 families includes supporters from the contiguous United States. The shul offers what Glickman describes as an Orthodox approach to a Reform service Friday night and Shabbat morning services that lean toward Conservative with Orthodox overtones. The egalitarian services include English readings and mixed seating. A mechitza is available upon request. “Those are some of the demands of where we are,” he said. “I’m not trying to defend it. Ideologically, I’m Orthodox, and the message that I put out is that message.”

Outside the shul, mid-February to mid-March is the prime season for Glickman and his colleagues at the nonprofit Hawaii Whale Research Foundation, which studies a population severely curtailed by excessive whaling over the past 100 years. It’s also the time Glickman welcomes visitors from around the world for the shul’s annual Jewish Studies Program, sponsored by Kol Echad ( From December to April, about 4,000 humpbacks migrate to the warm, pristine waters off Maui. These inspiring, majestic creatures mate, birth and tend to their young. And there are so many humpbacks here at this time, locals jokingly call the sea “whale soup.”

On a previous visit, I once grabbed a spot on the Kiele V, a 55-foot catamaran operated by the Hyatt Regency, where I had stayed the night before. Just off the hotel’s beach, bursts of spouting water far off in the horizon were our first indicator of the graceful leviathans beneath the sea. Designating the ship’s bow as “12 o’clock,” the excursion was punctuated by shouts of passengers pointing left and right — first 9 o’clock, then 2 o’clock, 4 o’clock and on and on, until it seemed we had seen whales in nearly every direction.

I found myself smiling nonstop nearly the entire ride, witnessing splash after splash, breach after breach. Adult whales revealed their massive, dorsal ridges at the water’s surface. One particularly energetic baby practiced his acrobatics again and again. With a typical length of 40 to 45 feet, an adult humpback weighs an equal number of tons, an average of about one ton per foot. It’s difficult to describe the exhilaration of seeing something that size in its natural habitat.

No one understands exactly why whales breach, Glickman told me on Shabbat at his home, just a few minutes walk from the Jewish Congregation in Kihei. It may be a form of communication, bravado or simply a way to exclaim, “here I am.” Although the mothers are usually solitary creatures, as many as 17 males may accompany a lone female, even if she is still nursing a newborn. One dominant male swims nearby, escorting or “guarding” her and her child from other males gliding along below or around them. To create a visual and auditory screen between her and his competition, the dominant male emits a thick curtain of air bubbles, as Glickman illustrated during our impromptu melave malka. Clips from the incredible footage he shot during his volunteer shifts every Tuesday from January to April (when he temporarily leaves his pulpit for a snorkel and mask) reveal the underwater dynamics of what cannot be seen from above.

Another day, my jaw dropped as two males powerfully surfaced with their mouths slightly open. They swam surprisingly close to our ship, run by the Pacific Whale Foundation, one of Maui’s countless whale-watching operators. I didn’t even need binoculars to clearly see the massive bumps and ridges on their gigantic heads.

The Jewish Congregation of Maui is located at 634 Alulike St. in Kihei, Maui, Hawaii 96753; (808) 874-5397; Walking distance to the shul is at the Maui Lu Resort, 575 South Kihei Road; (877) 997-6667; Ask for a beachfront room for a memorable Shabbat.

On Feb. 21, the shul hosts its second-annual Jewish Studies Retreat sponsored by Kol Echad. The weeklong session, in which Lisa Klug will be teaching, includes workshops, touring and a complete Shabbat program. For more information, visit or call (512) 797-7010.

The Hyatt Regency Maui operates the Kiele V from Kaanapali Beach. For excursion reservations, call (808) 661-1234. For more information about the Pacific Whale Foundation, visit or call (808) 879-8811. Abundant listings of whale watching excursions are found in the free tourist brochures available at the airport.

A great place for kids to learn more about humpbacks is the interactive Whale Discovery Center at the Maui Ocean Center, 192 Maalaea Road in Wailuku, on the road between the airport and Lahaina; (808) 270-7000;

Making Maui Family-Friendly

We met a man by the pool at the Grand Wailea. Our children were splashing around together, and he and I got to talking with all the intimacy that comes from knowing for certain we would never see each other again.

Ten years ago in Silicon Valley, the man explained, he invented something that involved computers and music. He formed a company, took it public, then cashed out. In his mid-30s, he no longer has to work. He and his wife raise their three young children, and travel with them around the world. Last summer it was Switzerland and Austria for two months, the summer before that it was Israel. But every winter, like swallows to Capistrano, they return to Maui. This is a guy who can go anywhere, do anything. So why return to the same island in the middle of the Pacific? “The kids,” he said, “The kids love Maui.”

We nodded. By then my wife Naomi and I were at the end of six days in Maui with our two children, Adi, who is 6, and Noa, almost 4. For about a year, the Maui Visitors Bureau has been promoting their island as an ideal family vacation destination (“Maui Loves Children!”), and we were happy enough to give their marketing strategy a test run, with the Bureau picking up a portion of the tab.

I, for one, was dubious. Back in the ’70s, when Las Vegas touted child-friendly accommodations like Circus Circus, it all seemed a shameless way to keep the kiddies busy while mom and dad blew their college funds at the crap tables.

But Maui, of course, has no gaming. So why the push? Family travel is still a growing trend. More people are having children later in life, meaning they have more vacation money to spend, and want to spend their time with the children they’ve waited (and in many cases, worked hard) to have. Maui has stunning beaches, blue water, superb snorkeling, rain forests, funky towns and luxurious resorts. It’s long been paradise for honeymooners, surfers and retirees. Now the island’s hotels, resorts and restaurants are making an extra effort to include children.

“They told us children are welcome,” a man from Chicago with his three kids told us by the pool at the Four Seasons Wailea, “but they didn’t tell us how much.” Like us, the man arrived to find his children’s names spelled out in sponge letters by the bathtub, and three white mini-bathrobes hanging in the closets. The Four Seasons also has a children’s room service menu with complete kiddie breakfasts for about six dollars — one of the best deals on the island.

We spent our first three nights at the Ritz Carlton in Kapalua, a grand Victorian-style hotel that slopes down toward one of the world’s great surfing beaches. We figured if the Ritz could be relaxed about our children racing down the halls and leaving fingerprints on the damask, we’d know whether Maui loved children or just liked them.