Its hard to find a minyan on a U.S. aircraft carrier at sea

ABOARD USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT, Eastern Mediterranean — It was Friday evening and Rabbi Maurice Kaprow, deputy chaplain of the U.S. Navy's Sixth Fleet, led a small congregation aboard this aircraft carrier in a Kabbalat Shabbat service.

As we reached the verse in "Lecha Dodi" translated as "whose shelter of peace is spread over us," a jet returning from an operation in northern Iraq slammed down on the flight deck above us, sending a rumble through the chapel.

Kaprow, a Conservative rabbi from Florida, had just arrived aboard for a three-week stint during which he plans to hold Shabbat services, Friday night dinners, and a seder. He hopes to establish a Jewish program on board that can be self-run once he leaves.

"We know from experience that, until a rabbi comes out, Jews hide," he said.

Kaprow, 58, who is lively and personable, said roughly 1 percent of the Navy is Jewish, leading him to believe that there could be as many as 50 Jews among the crew of 5,000. (When I arrived, I could only find two; after three weeks, I have met approximately five.)

Kaprow is the only rabbi with the Sixth Fleet, which is deployed across the Mediterranean. There are only nine rabbis in the entire navy. On Friday, three Jews turned up, besides me and a wire-service photographer, who, like me, is assigned to the ship. There were a few non-Jews, too.

Kaprow plans to wander the ship in search of more Jews, hoping they will spot either his kippah or the embroidered symbol on his collar of two tablets and a Star of David.

"Some of them will poke their heads out," he said. "If it's anything like any of the other carriers, I'm willing to bet you we will find at least 10 to 15 who are willing to participate, and then you'll have others who will hide away and won't want to get involved."

At the Friday night service, candles were lit. We read from Navy-issued prayerbooks. Kaprow explained some of the prayers and instructed how to sing "Shabbat Shalom." "Adon Olam" was chanted to the tune of "It's a Small World," the way he used to do it with a congregation in Orlando, Fla., home of Disney World.

For Kiddush, we were each given a thimble of Kedem wine, and the bottle was then locked away. He apologized for not having had enough time to arrange for challah and promises to have the bakers prepare it for next week. Before the service, we aired out a Torah scroll, which had been locked away in a black case, unused since the ship's last cruise during the campaign in Afghanistan.

Kaprow delivered a short sermon as the planes continued to slam down above. "This is not a war for oil. This is a war because folks out there want you to live the way they do," he said. "We are fighting for the basic essentials of the Constitution and the of the United States."

He described the war as a milhemet mitzvah, or an obligatory war, and said Purim, which went unmarked on the ship, was timely. "We're fighting another Haman," he said.

Kaprow is a wandering Jew of sorts.

There are 54 ships currently in the Sixth Fleet's area. And Kaprow spends his time bopping from one to the other. Before coming here, he spent three weeks on the destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill. There, he found three Jews in a crew of 350. A few months ago he was aboard the carrier USS Harry S. Truman, where there are now 15 active Jews.

Kaprow did not expect to join the Navy. He started out as a public school teacher and administrator. "I had smicha [ordination] but I never wanted to use it," he said.

In the late 1980s, he started a small communal family service in Orlando. Sometimes he visited jails. In the summer of 1989, a friend asked if he wanted to be a civilian contractor in the navy for three to six months and work as a rabbi in a boot camp.

Kaprow accepted and by the end of his stint, he had 50 kids attending Shabbat services. He had also decided he was joining up. "I fell in love with those kids," he said. His first deployment was aboard the USS Saratoga in the Red Sea during the first Gulf War.

"It's great a rabbi came on board," Nathaniel Miller, 20, an electronics engineer from Pennsylvania, told me after the service. "Like he said, we were in hiding." Christopher Schikevitz, of Kansas City, Mo., believes "there's enough of us for a minyan."

And John David Shelton, who works in combat systems, plans to participate in any new Jewish programming. Raised Baptist, he has recently decided to convert to Judaism, inspired by his brother-in-law who did so a year ago.

"I never really got the whole trinity thing," he said. "Christianity doesn't really encourage asking questions." He recently read "Judaism for Dummies" and plans to order more books online.