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For Crew Members and Passengers, All-kosher Cruise Navigates New Waters

March 5, 2004
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Chef Erwin Van Oosten could be forgiven for not knowing what hit him when the rabbi ordered that the lasagne be sent back into the kitchen.

It was the executive chef’s first full day running the kitchen for a Caribbean cruise ship full of kosher passengers, and he had thought all was in order by the time the prodigious luncheon buffet had been laid out for the guests.

But it turned out the cheese lasagne had been cooked in a meat tray, and the head mashgiach — the rabbinic supervisor charged with ensuring that everything was properly kosher — had noticed the mistake before any guests dug in.

“I was shaking,” the chef recalled later that night in the elegant dining room of the Wind Surf, the flagship vessel of the luxury line of Windstar cruises. The company chartered out the vessel for four weeklong kosher cruises this winter.

“Kosher is not different as long as you follow the rules,” the Dutch chef said. “But sometimes we make mistakes.”

Indeed, creating the world’s first all-kosher, all-the-time cruise required “a learning curve for all of us,” said Matthew Shollar, the man behind the kosher excursions.

Shollar, 36, a member of Chabad-Lubavitch from Pittsburgh, joked that the idea emerged when he was looking for a way to celebrate a host of special occasions in his family — and then he got carried away.

An ocean liner buff since he was a kid, Shollar was familiar with the cruise business. He had started a cruise marketing Web site in the late 1990s, e-Cruise, but his company went belly up, along with much of the dot-com boom.

He started researching the idea of creating an upscale kosher cruise experience, and months later his new company, Chosen Voyage, was born.

For years, many large cruise liners have turned parts of their kitchens kosher to accommodate groups of kosher passengers, but the partnership with Windstar was the first attempt to make an entire ship kosher. A 290-passenger ship complete with sails, the Wind Surf would make everything kosher — from the champagne to the emergency rations on the lifeboats.

“This is the only kosher experience — hotel or cruise — that provides 24-hour kosher room service,” Shollar said. Even the crew, he noted, ate kosher.

The extraordinary planning and execution required was a team effort, with Shollar working closely with the ship’s senior crew members and Peter Davis, the director of charters for Windstar.

The details were endless, from the logistics of kashering the ship’s three galleys to buying all new china and kosher products to training the crew — from the captain down to the stewards and housekeeping staff, most of whom come from Indonesia and the Philippines.

And it wasn’t just the laws of kashrut that needed to be learned for the voyage, which embarked from Puerto Rico and visited some of the smaller, more exclusive islands of Virgin Gorda, St. Martin, St. Barths, Nevis and Dominica.

The trip catered to an Orthodox crowd — ranging from modern Orthodox to fervently Orthodox Jews — so staff needed to learn some things about Sabbath observance and Orthodox social customs. The ship drew up several manuals and guidelines, including the extensive Guide to Kosherization.

A separate manual, Training Guide — the Onboard Guest Experience, detailed the do’s and don’ts for interacting with Orthodox guests. While the manual noted that not all Orthodox “are observant of the issues at the same level, we will set the bar at a high level that would make any of our guests feel comfortable.”

The manual described in great detail how men and women who are not married to each other may act, warning against shaking hands with the opposite sex and outlining the need to designate separate activity times for men and women in the pool, fitness center and spa.

“It changed our way of work completely,” said Dalibor Pocanic, the dining room manager.

He said the months of preparation were made more meaningful when some of the rabbis involved sat down to explain the whys of kashrut.

Pocanic, who is from Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro, and has been with Windstar for three years, said it was all very unusual and interesting for him.

He said he came to appreciate “the way the Jewish people serve and appreciate God.”

At the beginning of the first cruise, the staff clearly was nervous.

“They were scared to use the china to take a drink of water,” said Reuven Millet, who served as the liaison between Chosen Voyage and the ship and was credited for making the experience a success.

Even by the third voyage, one waiter was reluctant to offer a diner more than one selection of herbal tea because he didn’t think the others were kosher.

When asked what he thought about the idea of kosher, Andy, a waiter from Indonesia, offered, “It’s different, but I know it’s more sanitized. I like that they put everything in boiling water to get rid of the bacteria,” he said, referring to the pre-use dunking of many of the utensils to make them kosher.

The staff appeared so well trained that none among the housekeeping staff even blinked an eye — at least in public — when they were asked to rip up toilet paper before Saturday so that passengers wouldn’t have to violate the prohibiting of tearing on the Sabbath.

Even the entertainers had to adjust their acts to accommodate the clients. The small band hired to play each evening made do without its lead female singer because Orthodox observance of Jewish law bars men from hearing women sing.

By the end of the week, many of the crew members clearly were enjoying themselves. When spontaneous dancing broke out in the dining room on Shabbat, several of the waiters were leading the line, singing and smiling with fervor.

For Capt. Mark Boylin, the entire experience was a revelation.

“To see the kosherization of the ship and the lengths that they went to caught us all by surprise,” said Boylin, a native of Beckenham, England.

When he saw the rabbis with their blowtorches take on the kitchen ovens, he recalled, “it looked more like a shipyard welding job than any religious process.”

But in the end, Boylin, who has piloted Windstar charters for groups as diverse as corporate salespeople, gay men and nudists, took it all in stride.

“A kosher charter isn’t really all that different when you come down to it,” he said. “It’s easier to deal with than a bunch of drunken sailors.”

By week’s end, even the top chef was in full swing, swiftly ticking off final preparations needed to turn the kitchen into Shabbat mode — making sure the stove’s burners were on, the food all cooked and the food warmers stocked.

The only thing he couldn’t quite understand was why different rabbis had different standards about what kosher labeling was acceptable. “Why does one rabbi accept a K and another one not?” he asked with a hint of frustration.

The ship’s head mashgiach, Rabbi Avrohom Groner, from North Miami, said the cruise was a real breeze compared to other part-kosher cruises he has supervised. On this one, he had five deputy kosher supervisors helping him out.

“Before, it was a challenge to make sure there was no disaster,” the rabbi said. “Here, the challenge is to make sure everything is perfect.”

The passengers seemed only to have praise for the experience and the efforts of the ship’s crew.

“What’s really special is that this opens a new avenue for Orthodox Jews to travel,” said Michael Penn, of Brooklyn, who was traveling with his wife and two children.

“There’s a certain comfort level” about the whole experience, said his wife, Joan. “You don’t feel different from the other guests.”

Shollar and his small group of investors, who lost money on their first kosher-cruise effort due to underbooking, were determined to make this one work.

“We expect to see profitability in the second year of operations,” Shollar said.

Shollar already is planning a New York-Bermuda cruise in late August and hopes to run two Caribbean cruises next winter. “This was a pioneering endeavor,” said passenger Daniel Frucher, who runs a company, Leisure Time Tours, that offers kosher-for-Passover experiences in places as varied as Italy and Phoenix. “My kipah is off to them.”

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