It was on the MS Volendam that I realized how much I had absorbed from my six years of rabbinic education. Like the medical doctor of an earlier time who made house calls with a medical bag in tow, I had taken a small suitcase of books with me, as well as the short sermons and other material I had pre-prepared in file folders before boarding the ship in Vancouver, Canada for the High Holy Days.
We were headed for the South Pacific. I knew that I would have very limited access to the Internet for supplementary material, so I had taken the precaution of bringing a dozen copies of specific services and — since plants or fruit could not be brought onto the ship — of preparing a bubble-wrapped lulav with artificial leaves representing the palm, myrtle, and willow for Succothservices. These were my materials. The rest was in my head and my heart. In addition, as Guest Staff Rabbi on the Cruise Ship, I would have to adapt to the different rooms and schedules assigned for religious services. They would be empty rooms until I used my newly-minted rabbinic capabilities to make them into Makoms, into sacred spaces, and the diverse people who would come to fill them into a temporary community.
Well into the cruise, a woman with slightly greying hair, Bernadine, hugged me to her joyfully in the corridor outside the room where I had just conducted an Erev Shabbat prayer service. Our ship was a mere dot on the vast Pacific ocean at the time, voyaging between Vancouver, Canada and Sydney, Australia. On the way we had already visited some of the many groups of Pacific islands: Hawaii, American Samoa (a U.S. territory where the indigenous people are intent on preserving their culture, yet there are many churches of various denominations, with the Mormon Church predominating); Fiji (only 133 of 300 plus islands are inhabited); Vana’atu (Mystery Island, an uninhabited island, where some episodes of “The Survivor” were filmed); and New Caledonia (formerly a French colony, where American troops were stationed during WW II). But at that moment of our cruise hug, all we could see through the ship’s many large windows were sky and sea melting into one another. A time and place to marvel at the works of the Divine, indeed.
“I have the courage now,” Bernardine cried, happy tears escaping down her cheeks. “I thought I was too old, but you inspired me.” She had been working with seniors for years and had long yearned for but hesitated to enter a degree program in gerontology. “I’m going to take the plunge,” she confided. With his arm around her shoulders, her husband nodded his own encouragement. They were both devout Catholics. We had first met when I was invited to “preach” at one of the Catholic masses held daily on the ship. On another occasion, I was asked to read a passage from the Old Testament. In return, the priest (a retiree) attended most of our Jewish services — where I honored him in a similar fashion.
In a meaningful interfaith service at the Arizona Memorial in Oahu, all the on-board clergy (the priest, the Protestant minister, and myself as rabbi) participated jointly in memorializing the men who died at sea at Pearl Harbor. After that deeply felt occasion, we three clergy enjoyed having several lunches together. We discussed religious similarities and differences between our respective faiths. Their congregational concerns were very much like those we face in Jewish life today: declining membership and attendance; making religion relevant to a new generation; intensified focus on educating youth; attending to the changing needs of a growing elderly population more likely now to stay in their homes than opt for costly assisted-living residences; interference in (or fear of) speaking from the pulpit about public issues that needed to be addressed; and, yes, we talked honestly about Israel.
So did a number of people (both Jews and non-Jews) who would approach me from time to time on the ship to ask challenging questions, things they were too reticent to ask in more formal settings. Some were evangelical Christians who wanted me to know that they were definitely “pro-Israel.” One person asked me if sacrifices still figure in Judaism today, and if the blood libel had any truth to it. Another man quoted chapter and verse from the Book of Daniel and wanted to know why, in the light of these prophecies, Jews still would not accept Jesus as their Messiah. Fortunately, my pluralistic training at AJRCA had prepared me to field questions such as these. I always had to be “on” as a rabbi.
My tour of duty also included Sh’mini Atzeret (it was fun to pray for rain with water, water all around us!) and a joyful Simchat Torah. Our little Jewish “community” all took turns reading from the Plaut Torah in English. Other than an Israeli couple (and an American who lived half the year in Eilat) who made up my regular minyan of ten or 12 people—a good turnout considering the small proportion of Jews on the ship — none of my “congregants” could read Hebrew.
It was satisfying to shape such disparate people — from Canada, Australia, England, America, Mexico, and Israel — into a little community that gleefully took the two loaves of challah and two bottles of ritual wine provided for us for the festivals and Sabbath eves into the dining room for Friday night dinner together. They even approached several “Jews who don’t go” on the ship and encouraged them to join our Friday nights.
That’s why Arik — who “goes to shul only once a year and that’s enough!” — couldn’t bring himself to accept an artificial lulav, electric candles (because we were not allowed to light real ones on the ship), and a lemon from the ship’s kitchen instead of an etrog (the fourth species, a member of the citrus family) for Succoth. “A lemon is not an etrog,” he said excitedly. He is right. It’s not. But where do you get a fresh etrog in the middle of the South Pacific ocean on a 25-day cruise? At least we had dinner together in a temporary shelter (okay, not a branch-covered hut, but at least an Ark of sorts). On the first night of Succoth, we waved the artificial lulav in every direction, thanked God that we had survived to this season, and invited imaginary guests to join us. When we stepped outside on deck, looked at the stars and inhaled the cresting waves, we were a community, joyful and hopeful for the future.
Later, when we explored Isle des Pins (Island of Pines), one of the New Caledonian islands, we climbed about 150 rough-hewn, slippery stone steps to reach a tiny church that was several hundred years old and still in use. Originally built by Catholic missionaries using indigenous artisans who put into play their imaginative woodcarving, it was perched high on a mountain top. At the rear of the church, overlooking the sea, stood a tall Catholic memorial carved in stone. At its top, a saintly stone figure held a cross aloft, Statue of Liberty style.
The memorial was dedicated to the men of the island who had served France in two World Wars. And circling the memorial stone were native totems, tall ones to recognize those who had been high chiefs, as was the native custom. In between the tall totems were symmetrically interspersed, shorter totems to signify lower orders in the indigenous hierarchy. Here, in this beautiful, natural setting with abundant flowers, traditional Catholicism was mixed with native culture — a phenomenon we call “syncretism” today — to honor the men who had given their lives for freedom.
One might say, comparatively speaking, that this memorial was not exactly an oval-shaped, bumpy-skinned etrog in its adherence to strict religious belief, but in its combined purpose of respect paid and beauty intended to elevate and comfort, it was like a fresh lemon, golden yellow and round. It was both touching and reverent. As this blended memorial etched itself into the camera of my memory, it supported my belief as a young-old rabbi that the spirit of religion often trumps the letter of the law.