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;