The sight of Hasidic singing sensation Mordechai Ben David singing his smash hit “Mashiach” live aboard a luxury cruise ship in Alaska is an incongruous one. And yet, the song’s redemptive hope is somehow a fitting anthem for exploring the state that promotes itself as America’s final frontier. The majestic wildlife, virgin forests and pristine waters certainly suggest a paradise of sorts.
On a recent voyage organized by Florida-based Kosherica Cruises, Ben David rocked a crowd of mostly observant Jews gathered from nearly every corner of the globe. His performance was one of a handful organized by cruise director Yehuda Schifman, who pioneered the concept of cantors at sea and now offers many opportunities simultaneously to cruise the world and enjoy glatt kosher dining, daily prayers, Talmud classes and other fixtures of communal Jewish life.
Schifman conceived of Kosherica in 1995 while vacationing in Costa Rica with his family. And since its first glatt kosher cruises in 1996, the company’s offerings have expanded exponentially. There’s everything from the Panama Canal in February to exploring the Baltic in August. And before 2006 comes to a close, Kosherica is also scheduled to cruise South America and Australia.
Kosherica’s more conventional itineraries include winter Caribbean sailings and summer Alaskan ones. The company’s most recent Alaskan excursion, a round-trip voyage from Seattle, clocked in at 2,420 nautical miles. The highlight of sailing the picture-postcard Inland Passage was the guided tour of astounding Glacier Bay, with an up-close view of the massive Hubbard Glacier. In three ports, Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan, a variety of excursions were available.
The cruise also offered remarkable sightings of massive humpback whales fluking their magnificent tails and spouting spray high above the water’s surface. On a typical Alaskan day, clouds weave cottony billows around the tips of unbridled spruce forests — which meet the edge of the nutrient-rich green waters — and waterfalls break through the rocky cliffs lining the shore. And when one tires of nature’s bounty, Kosherica offers performances by such headliners as Ben David, as well as lessons with such scholars as Rabbi Isaac Wasserman, dean of Denver’s Yeshiva Toras Chaim.
The combination attracted 200 guests as well as another 100 singles from JSingles-Cruise.com, which Schifman’s daughter,
Helit Edelstein, coordinates in conjunction with two Kosherica voyages each year. This makes it easy for families and singles to travel together. JSingles only operates at the same time as Kosherica; as cruise directors, father and daughter team up to manage events and other administrative details. JSingles offers on-board speed dating, games and even Pre-cruise consultations with a dating coach. The results speak for themselves: JSingles has celebrated three marriages since its inauguration in August 2004.
During “sea days,” ship guests choose from mind-boggling array of activities, which run from 7 a.m. to midnight and fill up a printed bulletin delivered to staterooms daily. Offerings include on-board shopping, spa treatments, gambling, ballroom dance classes, fitness classes, basketball and other sports. There is also Israeli folk dancing with Dassie Schuster, an experienced New York instructor from Stern College, who holds women-only sessions for Kosherica and JSingles passengers.
Exercise is a must because, like all cruises, Kosherica’s and JSingles’ are jam-packed with food, all meeting the strictest kosher standards — glatt kosher, cholov yisroel and pas yisroel — prepared by five-star chefs under Maritime Glatt Kosher supervision. The day’s three meals consist of buffet breakfasts and lunches and nightly, five-course, white-tablecloth dinners. Snack times include afternoon tea and a midnight buffet. Typical menus are “multinational,” with everything from Argentinian steaks and apple-cherry tarts to potato pirogen, sushi and tostados. Low-salt, diabetic, lactose-intolerant and vegetarian diets are easily accommodated. Even kids’ menu favorites — think curly fries and hot dogs — are available for all ages.
Like humans, humpback whales flock to Alaska each summer to feed. And spotting whales surfacing, spouting and fluking are frequent on-deck pastimes. When the ship drops anchors, exploring the magnificent terrain takes top billing. Our first day in port brought us to Juneau, where heavy rain and winds prevented a scheduled helicopter ride to the Mendenhall Glacier. Instead, I headed to the salmon hatchery, a private nonprofit that helps repopulate the dying native salmon population by using natural methods; 40% of all fished salmon in Alaska currently hails from hatcheries. In the hatchery’s visitor’s center, I held a cold-water purple starfish and other local sea creatures. I especially marveled over a beautiful green-and-white sea urchin and its many harmless tentacles gently waving in response to the slightest touch. After more sightseeing and a local brew at the Hangar on the Wharf, a converted hangar for Alaska Airlines flight planes, I raced back to the ship for dinner. Then I took in a fabulous meal of cauliflower soup, halibut in a lemon sauce and chocolate cream pie.
The next day, in Skagway, I headed into town for a quick city tour. After we set sail that afternoon, guests crowded into the theater for Ben David’s concert. Our last port was Ketchikan, where the Duck Tour takes guests on a Coast Guard-certified amphibian craft that doubles as a boat and bus. As part of our land tour, we explored the town, spotting wild salmon spawning on Ketchikan Creek. We proceeded into the marina, entered the water and, true to name, motored down the sea channel. There we took in the sight of seaplanes overhead. But the real prize was the spectacular scene of a bald eagle nesting and her mate winging by.
Kosherica and JSinglesCruise will team up again aboard Celebrity Cruises’ “Infinity,” January 22-29, 2006. For more information, reservations and the full 2006 itinerary, visit Kosherica.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. or call (305) 695-2700 or (877) 724-5567. Or for singles, visit JSinglesCruise.com, e-mail info@JSinglesCruise.com, or call (917) 952-4033 or (323) 640-7230.