Cruises gearing up for Passover with rabbis, matzah, seder menus

The 1992 South Pacific holiday cruise aboard the Pacific Princess had gone without a hitch. A priest, minister and rabbi ministered to their flocks, conducting services and presiding over special meals.

And, because all three major religions were represented, an ecumenical renewal of marriage vows proved inspirational.

But something wasn't kosher about Passover. Everyone knew the eight-day holiday ended on Saturday. However, when the passengers arrived in the theater for Friday evening's Shabbat services, participants noticed a large challah.

Whispers bounced around. Should someone tell the rabbi or simply whisk it away? The ship's galley obviously had prepared its usual Friday night challah, not realizing that Passover was still in effect, thus making the bread forbidden fruit.

Finally, someone recognized that all was right in the watery world; although Friday night would still have been Pesach normally, because the ship had crossed the International Date Line there were two Thursdays that week, thus making eight Passover days after all.

Passover services were conducted by Rabbi Earl Starr of Seattle's Temple de Hirsch Sinai. Held in the ship's theater, it drew about 40 people from the United States, Australia and England.

A passenger from Beverly Hills discovered the chef didn't know how to make matzah balls, so she went into the galley and demonstrated the proper technique.

Whatever the itinerary, reasons for a Passover cruise abound. Observant Jews can avoid the Herculean home preparations that precede Passover. And it's a chance for several generations to share the holiday together.

To appeal to the observant, in 1987 the Ocean Princess began offering a glatt kosher cruise on the entire ship. It was never run again. Sam Weiss of Madan Kosher Foods in Dania, Fla., said kashering the ship required a week's turnaround time while the ship was inactive. In addition, many ships today sail on Saturday, preventing observant Jews from initiating travel on the Sabbath. Lack of interest apparently also played a part.

Weiss, whose company has been preparing kosher meals for ships, planes and hospitals for 28 years, delivers a variety of frozen dishes to cruise vessels. They're often enhanced by freshly made salads and fruit.

The QE2 was formerly the only ship providing freshly prepared kosher food (not counting the late Israeli Zim Lines), but disuse forced the line to eliminate its kosher kitchen.

The following are among the cruise lines that offer special Pesach amenities. Some may still have openings. Check with your travel agent:

*Cunard's classy QE2 is still the best bet for some, because it's the only ship with a separate synagogue aboard. The line's other ships will each have a rabbi presiding over the seder and have kosher meals available.

*Princess Cruises' "love boats" will each have a rabbi aboard to conduct Passover services and a seder.

*Commodore Cruise Line's Enchanted Isle provides a rabbi or cantor, decorations and traditional foods such as gefilte fish, matzah ball soup, baked chicken and boiled brisket, matzah and macaroons.

*Crystal Cruises offers several features: The Crystal Symphony will have Rabbi David Susskind onboard, and the Crystal Harmony will also carry a rabbi or cantor; each will conduct a private seder the first night of Passover aboard.

*On Celebrity Cruises' ships, seders will be conducted on April 3 and 4.

*On the small, elegant Seabourn ships, Rabbi Norman Kahan will officiate aboard the Seabourn Spirit, Rabbi Melvin Silverman on the Seabourn Pride and an as-yet unnamed rabbi on the line's new Queen Odyssey. A traditional seder meal will be offered.

*Holland America will offer seders on all ships, conducted by rabbis.

*On the Carnival ships, traditional Passover foods are available on request.

*The cozy Dolphin & Majesty Cruise Line ships will provide Passover foods.

*Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines will have rabbis aboard all ships and will serve first-night seders.

*The Orient Cruise Line's Marco Polo will have a seder service conducted by Rabbi Harry Shere of Mission Viejo.