February 21, 2019

Aye-Aye, Rabbi!

For years, John Sherwood was a rabbi whose congregation was adrift.

And he couldn’t have been happier.

That’s because as a cruise chaplain, his floating congregation drifted to places like Venice, Istanbul, Costa Rica and Alaska.

“My wife and I have a passion for travel,” the 75-year-old Oxnard man said. “It’s always interesting to meet new people in new circumstances in new environments.”

After spending 22 years as rabbi at Reform Temple Emet in Woodland Hills, which merged with another congregation to form Temple Kol Tikvah, Sherwood retired and started taking advantage of cruise line programs that allow rabbis to travel for free in exchange for leading religious services on ocean liners.

Norwegian Cruise Line, for example, has an arrangement with the National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis. Each year, about 40 of its rabbis take part on cruises that coincide with the High Holy Days, Chanukah and Passover, according to program coordinator Rabbi Michael Abraham of New Jersey.

If it sounds like a great gig, it is.

“For most of the cruise, you’re basically just a passenger,” Abraham said.

Cruise veteran and Westwood resident Rabbi Harry A. Roth, 87, found the mother lode of cruise jobs, traveling around the world on 104-day trips on the Queen Elizabeth 2. He did this for 11 straight years after retiring from his pulpit in Massachusetts, and a large map hanging in his apartment is dotted with little hearts marking stops on his many exotic adventures.

In between all the awe-inspiring sights, Roth and his wife, Lillian, made a point of looking for something Jewish at each port of call. In Fiji, they visited a Chinese cemetery that had a small plot of land set aside for Jewish burials. In Japan, they found a synagogue that kept kosher food in a freezer for visitors.

Sometimes finding a Jewish connection took no effort at all.

“One year we actually were in Egypt on Passover Eve,” Roth said. “We had a wonderful seder, and we relived the Exodus from Egypt, except with more finesse.”

But when you’re a rabbi on the high seas, things can get a little complicated. For instance, what do you do when you cross the International Date Line, and suddenly you skip Shabbat?

“[Sometimes] on a Thursday night we’d have Sabbath Eve services because there wasn’t going to be a Friday,” Roth explained. “If you’re going to lose Saturday on the International Date Line … you had your Sabbath service on Sunday morning.”

A cruise chaplain’s work can also be trickier in some ways than that of their landlubber counterparts. On a ship, worshipers may come from completely different backgrounds, nationalities and denominations. Meeting all of their needs can be a challenge.

“You’re trying to conduct a service that will make as many [people] as possible comfortable,” said Abraham, who has served as a chaplain about 10 times. “I basically use the standard Reform service because it doesn’t cause any problems, but in some of the music I might emphasize certain things that are more traditional than just a straight service.”

Despite the many differences among the worshipers, they always had one thing in common.

“They were looking for community,” said Sherwood, who gave up being a cruise chaplain a year or so ago after serving at least a dozen times for Norwegian and Holland America Line. “I would suggest most of the people who showed up were not the most ‘narrowly defined devout people.’ … They were traveling the world and still having an opportunity to be Jewish.”

Attendance at services might range from a handful of people to more than 100, depending on the ship’s location — at port or at sea — and the holiday. Roth said that the first Friday night after the ship made a major stop was always popular.

“Everybody wanted to know who else was Jewish on the ship,” he said.

Often, because of the ship’s dress code on certain nights, worshipers turned up in style.

“It does not give you the impression of being a makeshift ceremony because people come dressed to the hilt,” Roth said. “The Queen Elizabeth had a formal night any time the ship was at sea … so people came to the chapel in gowns and tuxedos all the time.”

While there are no other duties implicit in the job of cruise chaplain, on occasion someone may seek counseling or — especially on longer cruises frequented by retirees — it could be necessary to deal with the death of a passenger. Roth also was part of a religious ceremony for a couple who previously had a civil marriage on land.

Some rabbis choose to expand their roles. Roth gave public lectures on Jewish topics. Sherwood, now an active member at Temple Beth Torah in Ventura, invited Jewish passengers to join him and his wife, Dolores, for coffee and conversation a day or two into the cruise.

“It got people to meet each other,” he said. “When they came to services, many of them were not strangers anymore.”

Of course, the passengers aren’t the only ones to make friends and enjoy fantastic voyages. The chaplains are also along for the ride.

“We got to meet people all over the world,” Roth said. “There are so many favorite moments, it’s hard to believe.”