Rabbi Dina Rosenberg was hesitant to accept the invitation from Royal Caribbean International to come on board the Oasis of the Seas for a seven-day Caribbean cruise last month.
“I just thought I would be leading Friday night services. And then I received an email and [they] kind of started to explain to me what they were looking for,” said Rosenberg, rabbi of B’nai Shalom of Olney, a Conservative synagogue.
One thousand Orthodox Jews had bought tickets for the cruise. That meant kosher meals and Shabbat services.
Royal Caribbean thought it should do better for its observant passengers than serving them the pre-packaged frozen kosher meals typically served on cruise ships. So the company decided to offer fresh kosher food.
“We identified, probably six months [before the cruise] that we had a high number of Orthodox Jewish guests,” said Craig Jarrett, manager of food and beverage operations for Royal Caribbean International. It was “a surprise moment to give them the best experience.”
This was the first time the company had attempted anything like this, and needed rabbis who could oversee things, Jarrett said.
Rosenberg was one of the rabbis who received the cruise line’s SOS in early January.
“I took a little while and wrote them back,” she said. She explained to them, “There are a lot of nuances within the Jewish world.”
Two of those nuances are that Orthodox Jews do not accept the authority of non-Orthodox rabbis, and most Orthodox Jews do not accept the authority of any women rabbis.
“You’re going to come across the issue,” Rosenberg said she told Royal Caribbean: “People aren’t going to trust my rabbinical authority.”
Jarrett and others said that Royal Caribbean does not discriminate and if she was OK with being onboard, so were they.
So she said yes.
It was to be a surprise for the passengers.
“Nobody even had any idea that we were going to bring a rabbi on board,” Jarrett said.
Anyone who was uncomfortable could have the frozen meals-in-a-box that they paid for, he said. For people who appreciated “the added bonus… it was a big wow for them.
The Oasis sailed on Jan. 20. One of the ship’s kitchens and dining rooms had been koshered for the cruise.
But the surprise caused “a lot of chaos,” Rosenberg said.
It started when passengers started boarding. Girls pointed at Rosenberg and said, “Girls can’t wear yarmulkes.”
As she had warned, her authority was questioned, and so was the kashrut of the food prepared in the kitchen.
Rosenberg powered through. In rabbinical school and in Israel she had experienced sexism and questions about her legitimacy. “Part of being a Conservative rabbi, is you have to have your own authenticity and use that authenticity to show who you are,” she said.
Soon, she found ways to connect with some of the Jewish passengers, and after a few days many of them became accustomed to her presence.
“They saw I was really there to advocate for them,” Rosenberg said.
She set up a Shabbat elevator using staff as elevator operators. She made sure that there were handwashing stations available for passengers. And she led Friday night services for a small group.
Royal Caribbean had purchased new dishes and cutlery for the Jewish passengers, but some people chose to eat the pre-packaged meals and use disposable cutlery. Rosenberg said that although some never came to trust her and continued to ask to see the food’s packaging, she ended up connecting with many people on the ship.
“It was a wonderful challenge. I think that’s the best I can put it. I’m proud to be a part of something new. I think [more] people would go on a cruise if they could have this fresh wonderful food. I learned more from these [Jewish] communities [on board] and learned my own prejudices,” she said.
Many of the people on board also ended up enjoying the food, according to Jarrett. “The places were always full. The feedback was pretty extraordinary; [they were] thanking us for making the effort,” he said.
Rabbi Rosenberg is working with Royal Caribbean and will be on board to help with koshering another ship in the near future.