Torah at sea — Berkeley sailor navigates tradition

For many folks, the Jewish sailing tradition doesn’t extend much past the buffet line on a luxury cruise.

Nell Ester Mahgel-Friedman wants to blow that stereotype out of the water.

Equally passionate about sailing and Judaism, the 33-year-old Berkeley resident is tying up those seemingly disconnected threads of her life by launching a series of Jewish-themed voyages for young people.

On Sunday, Dec. 21, she will usher in Chanukah with an afternoon cruise on the bay for youngsters and adults aboard the 57-foot Nehemiah, a cedar-hulled sailboat berthed in Richmond’s Marina Bay. Mahgel-Friedman hopes this will be the first in a series of day and overnight sailing trips on a program she’s dubbed High Seas Deep Torah.

Sailing is “not really an endeavor, a place where Jews are actively involved,” she says. “There are sailors who are Jewish [but] there’s not a place where Jews can go and keep kosher and celebrate Shabbos and the holidays.”

Participants on the December trip will learn about the boat’s bow-to-stern operations, practice tying knots, sing old sea shanties, do some navigation and steering and wind up lighting a menorah, dockside.

They’ll also get exposed to the spiritual side of sailing that tugs at Mahgel-Friedman like a strong tide. “There’s a feeling of God; it’s just beyond one’s control,” says Mahgel-Friedman, a rangy woman with light hair and piercing blue eyes.

While on land, she’s a P.E. teacher at Oakland Hebrew Day School and does occasional gigs as a Jewish rap artist named Queen Ester.

But despite periodic bouts of seasickness, it’s the water that calls out to the San Francisco native. “It’s an incredible feeling of at-oneness,” she says while sitting in the Nehemiah’s tiny cabin on a recent wet and raw morning.

Bundled up against the elements on this stormy day, Mahgel-Friedman is clad in Navy-issue sailing pants, a black beret, vest, long-sleeve fleece and sea-foam green windbreaker. The dark belly of the boat stays snug apart from a small drip around a skylight that owner Rod Phillips inspects and pledges to repair.

Phillips, who uses the boat to introduce low-income youngsters to sailing, will serve as captain. Mahgel-Friedman, who holds an Able Bodied Seaman rating from the Coast Guard, will lead the voyage with help from her husband, Chaim.

They will introduce youngsters to biblical tales about sailing and navigation that include Noah’s ark and Jonah and the whale.

The Talmud, she notes, is full of stories about the sea, likely stemming from the role of ancient sailors as disseminators of culture and news from other lands.

She sees some direct connections between the upcoming sailing trip and the Festival of Lights. For instance, the story of Noah mentions a window in the ark where light enters and spreads out.

“It’s a prism, a kind of light that you find on ships,” she says, pointing to one on the Nehemiah’s deck. Mahgel-Friedman also sees a metaphor there about the value of looking more deeply inside oneself.

While out on the water, Mahgel-Friedman plans to cut the boat’s engine and simply give the young sailors a chance to spend some time in complete silence floating on the water, “just hearing the wind, the squawk of seagulls.”

To demonstrate the practical skills she plans to teach, Mahgel-Friedman picks up a heavy coil of rope and deftly ties a tricky but useful knot called the bolin. “They may not master it, but we’ll go through the motions so everyone is exposed to it,” she says.

As for personal yarns, Mahgel-Friedman describes how she was first snared by sailing as a sixth-grader growing up near Golden Gate Park.

Her class spent an overnight aboard the C.A. Thayer, a 19th-century schooner docked at the Hyde Street Pier, and a young Mahgel-Friedman was captivated by that brief taste of life aboard a century-old sailing ship.

Though the vessel never left the dock, she said, “I just remember feeling so sad when it was over.”

While attending Humboldt State University, Mahgel-Friedman spent a semester in 1992 at a sailing program in Woods Hole, Mass. On a trip to St. Thomas aboard a 124-foot schooner, she ran into a hurricane and a gale that only deepened her thirst for the water.

Waves crashed over the side of the boat and when the vessel pitched to the bottom of the enormous swells, “all you’d see is just walls of water,” she recalls. Mahgel-Friedman was really hooked.

Returning to the Bay Area, she worked in maritime programs with youngsters at the Hyde Street Pier and out of Sausalito.

At the same time, she was drawn by Judaism. Inspired by a college instructor, Mahgel-Friedman turned landlubber in 1995 and headed to Israel. Ultimately she stayed for two years, intensively studying the Torah. The training was life-altering, steering her on an observant course that included celebrating Shabbat and keeping kosher.

Back home, she taught Hebrew school in Oakland and signed up to crew on charter boats. That’s also when she started performing Jewish-themed raps as Queen Ester at Chabad of S.F.’s annual Purimpallooza party and other venues.

Then in 1998, she got an apprenticeship aboard the Clearwater, a 106-foot sloop that takes kids on educational and environmental sails up and down the Hudson River in New York.

“It was a big decision for me,” she recalls. Balancing those two sides of her life wasn’t easy. To ensure that she’d get to eat kosher food, “I made friends with the chef right away,” she says.

For Shabbat, she arranged with the first mate to either go ashore or be relieved of certain work shifts.

But as much as she loved being at sea — “It was just amazing to live on the boat” — Mahgel-Friedman discovered it was also a lonely existence for an observant Jew. “When I was on board, I’d find myself missing my Jewish community. Then if I was in shul, I’d miss the boat,” she says.

She felt the same yo-yo-ing of emotions on her next sailing stint, working aboard the Heritage of Miami. Mahgel-Friedman spent three months aboard the boat in 1999 as chief mate, taking Boy Scout troops out on adventure cruises through the Florida Keys and to the Dry Tortugas islands.

Gastronomically, the summer was rough going. Mahgel-Friedman says she “survived on canned tuna fish” and often made Kiddush on her own in an empty cabin.

Once, though, a Scout informed her that he, too, was Jewish and she decided to wake him up one Saturday morning. “I was so happy,” she recalls. “There was someone to say, ‘Amen’ to my brachah.”

She returned to the Bay Area afterward, balancing her interests for a time by working on dining cruises and studying Torah.

“Then I decided I wanted to go back to Israel. Although I loved being on the water and doing the live-aboards, it was also very lonely Jewishly.”

In 2000, she got a scholarship to once again study in Israel. But at her landlocked yeshiva in Jerusalem, her longing for the sea once again surfaced when she undertook a study of the halachah of sailing on Shabbat.

Then it was back to the Bay Area and some new directions. Mahgel-Friedman got married in February and began charting the course for her Jewish sailing trips. “It became more and more clear to me that I’d need to create the program because it didn’t exist.”

Nell Ester Mahgel-Friedman and her High Seas Deep Torah program will offer a Chanukah cruise on the bay for youngsters and adults at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 21. Cost: $25 for children under 18; $35 for adults. Information: [email protected] or (415) 820-3200, ext. 613.