It is a week of water, both historical and contemporary. This is about the vastness and mastery of the sea, the endless hundreds and thousands of miles of water and sky with nothing else in sight. Last week, Rabbi Yair Hoffman pontificated on the matter of spending Shabbos on the high seas and the challenges that may accompany such an event. What he had in mind was my wife and I and our long-standing plans to pursue a warmer climate for a week or so, this time not by plane but by one large, handsome, and impressive cruise ship—the Norwegian Cruise Line’s Gem and the people of Kosherica.
This is a first for us after all these years and a variety of pursuits. I’ve met people over the last few days that had lost count as to how many of these types of cruises they have been on over the years. Allow me to state for the record several observations on the subject.
Even though there are close to 3,000 people on board, this experience affords one the opportunity to be alone and commune with a rare aspect of the natural wonders of our planet and creation. As I type these words onto my computer screen, I sit outside on a warm January morning. I am surrounded by the vast endlessness of the sea and the way its color meshes as a reflection of the blueness of the sky above.
The sea ebbs and flows, and its surface seems to be breathing like a human body inhaling and exhaling. Though the water is great and expansive, it seems to be mysteriously alone, though its presence and wily abilities dominate our world. We are reminded over these last few days that 70% of our planet is composed of water. So why is it so awesomely surprising that for the last three days the water surrounds us with nothing else in sight?
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Jacobson of Brooklyn, an erudite scholar, is with us on this journey. Over last Shabbos, he mused about the startling contrasts between the earth we live on every day and the sea we are traversing this week. The prophets talk about the future messianic era in the context of the knowledge of G‑d being as pervasive and total as the sea is filled with the water that I hear being churned by the engines underneath this ship.
The dry, populated land that we live on is dominated by personalities, individuals, and differences amongst people. There is a vast universe under these waters. To the casual observer, however, there is the simple oneness and unity of hundreds of miles of water without a hint of what exists or what is taking place below.
Indeed, the information we have is that the sea is 16,000 feet deep below us—and must be filled with an assortment of difficulties, challenges, and complications. But, for us humans, all there is to view is the unity of what covers the seabed—mostly tranquil but sometimes demonstrating an ability to be ferocious, as we saw recently in the case of Hurricane Sandy, which had life breathed into it by the sea. It becomes additionally apparent out here that we exist, to a great extent, at the mercy of the water that we both depend on and fear.
Our first stop after three days at sea and a glorious Shabbos is San Juan, Puerto Rico. The island has the status of a commonwealth of the United States with all the American amenities afforded to its four million residents without the status of statehood. Puerto Rico being neither here nor there in terms of some efforts to make it the 51st state of the U.S. means that a great deal of the businesses here maintain a certain tax-free status of sorts.
The streets in old San Juan are quaint, and one can see the Spanish as well as the Floridian influences in some of the neighborhoods and construction. It did not take long on Monday evening as we canvassed the shops of San Juan to run into the Chabad welcome center located just a few short blocks from where the Gem was docked.
Rabbi Levi Stein was greeting guests on our tour, and we had a chance to chat for a few minutes about what a young man from Detroit with a wife and a young daughter are doing in San Juan. The obvious inquiry from my direction is not just what Chabad is doing in Puerto Rico but what kind—if any kind—of Jewish community there is in Puerto Rico.
Rabbi Stein says there are about 2,500 Jews who are permanent residents of the island. By the way, the temperature here rarely drops below 80 degrees and it is sunny most of the time. There are a Conservative and a Reform synagogue, and Chabad is currently in the midst of building a new home for itself that will, in addition to a shul, also house a mikveh and a Hebrew school.
The influx of Jews as tourists and on business is steady, Rabbi Stein says. It is only appropriate, he says, that a few blocks from the port where so many cruise ships dock there be a small representation of a Chabad house as well as a nearby take-out food emporium where one can grab a kosher meal.
For us coming off a Kosherica event at sea for the last three days, the last thing we needed was a kosher meal. We are well taken care of and well fed on board the Gem.
From Puerto Rico it was on to St. Martin, an island that for hundreds of years was in dispute and fought over by the Dutch, Spanish, and French militaries. The rocky island, dotted with magnificent homes built high up on naturally exquisite mountains, is a sight to behold. From St. Martin it will be on to St. Thomas and then Samaná in the Dominican Republic.
After that I guess we make a U-turn here on the cusp of the border between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea and then we head back to New York. On board we will be reading about and studying the experience of the ancient Jewish nation and their hurried exodus from Egypt and their arrival at the shores of the Red Sea with nowhere else to turn. You know the rest of that story and where our history began as the sea split and in the midst of an indomitable ocean there was suddenly dry land and a path to traverse.
We will contemplate those events as we head back up north with nothing in sight but the immense waterbed of the sea and the reflection of the blue sky above. v
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